The UNHRC resolution offers India a chance to unambiguously communicate its commitment to a lasting political settlement in Sri Lanka
A US sponsored draft resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) calling on Sri Lanka to (amidst others things) present a comprehensive plan detailing the steps the government of Sri Lanka has taken and will take to implement the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission recommendations has caused quite a stir in both Sri Lanka and India.
Sinhalese nationalist outlets have been mobilizing protests directed at Western embassies in Colombo while the Rajapakse administration has gone on a diplomatic overdrive to lobby against the resolution. In India the faltering DMK and other Tamil chauvinist voices have succeeded in arm-twisting New Delhi into backing the resolution. The whole Dravidian political machinery was catalyzed by the conveniently timed release of provocative video footage showing the Sri Lankan in extremely bad light.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s decision to act by terms set by its southern ally has understandably attracted a lot of comment. It is possible that the commentary is colored by the perception of New Delhi’s weakness in dealing with unreasonable demands from regional entities. Nevertheless opposition to Delhi’s backing of the resolution has been driven by a variety of factors. Some of the opposition comes from viewing the US sponsored resolution through the prism of previous Western intervention in India.
There is a view that backing the US would mean a tacit support to remnants of international Tamil insurgents organisations. Opposition also comes from constituencies that are concerned about India’s annoying Sri Lanka rendering Colombo closer to Chinese influence. And then there is the constituency that argues for a realist orientation to our foreign policy, which in this instance means backing Colombo so it does not enter China’s orbit and keeping the West out of the region.
Amidst those supporting New Delhi’s move are a small constituency of idealists genuinely concerned about human rights violations and re-settlement in Sri Lanka. To the earnest voice of this group is added the cacophony of Tamil chauvinists and the NGO cottage industry.
There are many in India who had a favorable opinion of Mahinda Rajapakse the incumbent President of Sri Lanka. And Rajapakse in return professed much love for India, even claiming (correctly) that he was one of the first politicians in Sri Lanka to welcome India’s nuclear tests in 1998! New Delhi had offered its quiet support to Rajapakse administration throughout the last couple of years of the civil war. It would not be an exaggeration to say that between Colombo and New Delhi there was a good rapport and mutual understanding of each others difficulties. Rajapakse would respond with reciprocal concern and rhetoric to help New Delhi assauge the concerns of the southern lobby.
In 2009 he had famously paused the terminal phase of the civil war for a few days so the Congress party could get over with its election difficulties. Prabakaran the LTTE chief was also hoping for a break if the NDA returned to power in New Delhi. (The previous Ceasefire Agreement and negotiation which lasted for five years was mostly engineered by the BJP-led NDA government in New Delhi) Alas it was not to be. With the tacit approval of the Congress led-UPA the remnants of LTTE were mercilessly hunted down.
Post-2009 however the situation has turned out to be quite different. With the LTTE gone New Delhi had been keen on a quick political settlement. The only meaningful solution New Delhi could propose to Colombo had been a devolution of specific powers including land and police powers to a unified Tamil province as per the 13th amendment of the Sri Lankan constitution.
Although initially engaging India’s attempts towards this direction – sometimes even professing a desire to go beyond the 13th amendment – the Rajapakse adminsitration has gone about buying time and generally avoiding the issue as much as possible. Acting in good faith New Delhi has been defending the Sri Lankan administration until recently – including the use of its influence to scuttle damaging resolutions sponsored by Western powers at the UNHRC.
After nearly a year had been wasted in talks with ‘Tamil representatives’ the President saw it fit to cancel the dialogue and instead set-up a Parliamentary Select Committee to look into the issue of a political settlement for the Tamils. Mahinda Rajapakse who only weeks ago would reassure Indian and other interested parties of his sincerity in bringing about a lasting political settlement based on the 13th amendment now claimed it was upto the Parliament of Sri Lanka to tell him what had to be done!
With nearly half the Parliamentary strength belonging to the party Rajapakse heads this move has been correctly deduced as one of stalling the devolution and passing the proverbial buck. The Tamil parties have rightly refused to participate in the select committee. The stalemate continues.
Advocates of a foreign policy grounded in realism or in fears of a Chinese diplomatic offensive into the sub-continent would see no merit in either advancing the cause of a political settlement or breaking the present stalemate in Sri Lanka.
But even the realists I’m sure can see that the long term national and civilisational interest of India lies in a Sri Lanka where the Sinhalese and the Tamils are not at each others throats. Perhaps the 13th amendment currently being championed by New Delhi is not the right vehicle but that lasting peace and political stability is required cannot be denied. Wondering whether there are better alternatives or concerns about the Indian stand mirroring that of LTTE rump-organisations can be deployed to stall any approach towards Sri Lanka
Threats of a Chinese diplomatic offensive and increasing military presence in India’s backyard are over stated. For a navy that doesn’t sail much in this side of the Arabian sea – indeed a navy that is already hemmed in by large fleets of US, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Taiwanese navies – sailing into the Indian ocean is a long way off. Besides, Colombo wouldn’t need to be reminded that howsoever generous the Chinese support may be the Sri Lankan island will always remain a few dozen miles off our coast.
The question now is whether India’s objectives of devolution and settlement can be furthered through US sponsored resolutions at the UNHRC?
If the latest resolution offers India a means to unambiguously communicate its willingness to pursue a political settlement in the island nation then there would be merit in New Delhi allowing itself to be blackmailed by domestic political compulsions into backing the resolution.
Previous posts on Sri Lanka
- Sri Lanka: Unthinking belligerence
- Continued plight of SL Tamils
- Indian Tamil leaders in the Sri Lankan Conundrum