Deconstructing India’s Lankan Affair
There has been a 180-degree turn in the Indian stance vis-à-vis the attempts by the international community to reset the Sri Lankan government’s handling of its alleged human rights violations in the final stages of the war against the Tamil extremist organization known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [LTTE]. Ironically enough, India’s vote last week at Geneva supporting the resolution sponsored by the United States and its western allies at the 47-member United Nations Human Rights Commission literally helped the resolution scrape through with ‘majority support’ of 24 countries.
If India had abstained, the resolution would have perished. Several major regional powers opposed the resolution – Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, etc. – as well as India’s neighbors Bangladesh and Nepal.
What caused the volte-face in the Indian stance? In a nutshell, domestic political considerations prevailed. Indeed, a sense of frustration had begun creeping into the Indian foreign policy establishment as regards its diplomatic agility to prod Colombo to find a lasting solution to Sri Lanka’s Tamil problem following the decimation of the LTTE as a militant organization espousing separatism.
New Delhi counted that it could leverage the substantial political, diplomatic and military support it extended to Colombo in the decisive stages of the war to influence the latter’s post-war policies. However, the triumphalism in Colombo chose to feed on the massive upsurge in Sri Lankan nationalism, and the demons of Sinhalese chauvinism staged a comeback, while Sri Lanka’s ruling party found it useful to tap into these reservoirs to win successive presidential, parliamentary and local-body elections and tighten its grip on power.
Colombo banks on getting robust, unwavering support from India’s major neighbors – China, Pakistan and Iran – and on finessing the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean to its advantage, besides exploiting international disquiet that intrusive or prescriptive involvement by the world community would be precedent-setting.
Notwithstanding this complex matrix, the main reason for India’s decision to vote against Sri Lanka is to be found in its domestic politics. India’s coalition politics is delicately poised, which gives the two main Tamil regional parties in Tamil Nadu a larger-than-life role to play in national politics. Any future coalition government in New Delhi would have to depend heavily on the support of the Tamil parties.
Thus, in the current political fluidity in India, with growing talk of a possible mid-term parliamentary poll, both the main national parties – Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] – are under compulsion to be sensitive to Tamil politics. Even the Left parties demanded that India supported the US-led move against Sri Lanka in Geneva. All the national parties have resorted to political opportunism in pandering to the Tamil parties.
The great paradox is that it was left to the right-wing nationalistic Hindu organization known as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh [RSS] to take a highly principled position on the Sri Lankan issue. The RSS argued that India should not support the US-sponsored resolution for the following reasons:
• The western move is a motivated one to interfere in the internal affairs of a country with a democratically-elected government;
• The western move is precedent-setting and India may also become a victim of such moves some day;
• India’s geopolitical interests lie in robustly opposing the Western interference;
• The West should not be allowed to manipulate the UN forum to serve their agenda;
• The US’ intentions are highly suspect with regard to re-opening the wounds in the Sri Lankan body polity;
• The US has no locus standii to champion human rights issues as its own record is abysmal;
• The LTTE was a terrorist organization and is not worthy of any sympathy;
• The Mahinda Rajapaksa government in Colombo deserves support for putting down terrorism successfully;
• However, the responsibility to rehabilitate the displaced Tamils lies with the government in Colombo since they are equal citizens of that country.
• India has an interest and a moral responsibility to speak for the Tamils of Sri Lanka, which India has been doing all along. But India cannot make a case for anybody to intervene in Sri Lanka.
Obviously, these are weighty reasons and, conceivably, some of them do reflect perspectives held by Indian strategists, too. Suffice to say, the deep-rooted contradictions in India’s Sri Lanka policy surged to view during the voting at Geneva.
What lies ahead for Indian diplomacy? No one fancies that India’s vote at Geneva secured for it a handle to ‘pressure’ the Sri Lankan government. Nor does India propose to partner the US over the Sri Lankan affair. Indeed, within 48 hours of the voting at Geneva, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wrote to Rajapaksa to mollify any sense of hurt in Colombo. Colombo too seems to have has decided not to display any anger. Since Sri Lankans are astute practitioners of diplomacy, we may never even know the range of emotions in their heart of hearts.
That is to say, the Delhi-Colombo tango continues. Delhi will continue to counsel Colombo to find a just, fair and lasting solution to the Tamil problem and forever will Colombo patiently appear to be listening to the Indian demarches.
Having said that, Colombo is savvy enough to know that although the support from two permanent members of the UN Security Council – Russia and China – ensure the West cannot mount any drastic act of intervention in Sri Lanka in a near term, it would do no good to Sri Lanka’s interests to alienate India. In some ways at least, this is a South Asian variant of the “as-close-as-lips-and-teeth” syndrome involving China and North Korea.
The Sri Lankan ploy has been to prolong the national reconciliation and thereby discredit New Delhi’s interference and incrementally wear out the Indians rather than confront them. But this is where Sri Lanka may be making a mistake. Given the vagaries of India’s coalition politics for the foreseeable future, the policy of non-interference in Sri Lanka is becoming a non-option for Indian policymakers. Nor are Indian policymakers unaware that the human rights discourse is highly politicized in the context of international relations.
The external pressure through discussions at the UNHRC or other international forums could help Colombo understand that there are ‘red lines’. But the issue is whether Colombo sees things that way.
On the other hand, the political base of the Rajapaksa government is showing signs of wear and tear even as socio-economic problems are piling and anti-imperialistic rhetoric cannot be the perennial distraction. When repressive measures continue, when force is used to disrupt social protests, when extrajudicial killings remain a dreaded feature of life, Sri Lanka’s credentials to withstand the questioning by the international community is also getting steadily eroded.
There is glaring disconnect between Sri Lanka’s national (domestic) policies and its foreign policy imperatives. The point is also that the global environment is changing and it is only through responsible and principled policies in the domestic sphere with regard to the Tamil problem that ultimately Colombo can hope to ‘assimilate’ the Western pressure.
Washington also has a ‘hidden agenda’ toward the Sri Lankan political arena; after all, it was in the run-up to the UNHRC vote that it chose to affirm that the former army chief Sarath Fonseka is a political prisoner. Again, Sri Lanka’s close ties with China and Iran have definitely provoked Washington to keep Colombo on its toes.
To be sure, Colombo is on legitimate grounds in upholding its national sovereignty and the will of the majority opinion in the country as the ultimate benchmarks to decide its national reconciliation policies. These are fair principles. But then, life is not always fair. And more so when Sri Lanka’s capacity to defend itself and uphold its principles is heavily predicated on the willingness of its ‘friends’ to extend seamless support to it.
The heart of the matter is that the West is only demanding the implementation of a report handed over by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission [LLRC], which was appointed by the Sri Lankan Government. New Delhi would expect Colombo at some point to seek its help, since the role that India is uniquely placed to play in helping Sri Lanka to implement the LLRC cannot be matched by any of its friends individually or collectively.
- Strategic Culture Foundation