India-Sri Lanka Ties Post-UNHRC Vote – Analysis


“Backstabbing” was one of the countless reactions that emerged from Sri Lanka after India voted in support of the United States (US) – initiated resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The 22 March 2012 resolution called for accountability on part of the Sri Lankan government to the widespread human rights violations during the final phases of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009. Since then, Sri Lankan media have reported a rise in anti-India feelings in the island nation, some even advocating that Sri Lanka explore a friendlier tie with China, which voted against the resolution, to counter India.

Explaining India’s Vote

India’s decision surprised many both inside the country as well as outside, although the Indian Prime Minister, a couple of days before the resolution was put to vote, had indicated his government’s ‘inclination’ to vote in favour. In spite of that, there was a widespread anticipation that maintaining its good relations with Sri Lanka will ultimately push New Delhi to reverse its decision. At the worst, sceptics thought, India would abstain.

Many believe that India’s vote was heavily influenced by the political parties in Tamil Nadu, although in the past years, especially during the final phases of Eelam war, New Delhi did manage to remain immune from the pressures exerted by the state’s political parties of intervention to bring the war to a halt.

Days before the UNHCR resolution was put to vote, both the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu had asked New Delhi to vote in favour of the resolution. However, to interpret the decision as a result of the influence Tamil political parties would be a flawed generalisation. In fact, before 22 March, experts predicting that India would vote against the resolution, were constantly harping on the rapidly declining influence of Tamil Nadu on national politics. The ruling AIADMK is not a part of the ruling coalition in New Delhi. The opposition party in Tamil Nadu, the DMK, since its massive electoral defeat in April 2011, too has lost much of its clout and bargaining power in New Delhi. New Delhi sanctioned the prosecution of many of DMK’s senior leaders on corruption cases- a development which would have been virtually unimaginable in a scenario when the DMK called the shots in the state. To imagine that this non-existent influence suddenly dictated the government’s decision on the UNHRC vote is crediting both the DMK and the AIADMK with far too much than what they have.

Thus, on part of India, the vote against Sri Lanka was nothing short of a demonstration of independent action. In addition, it was also some sort of a moral and ideological awakening- values that need not be estranged from real politik every time. It was an admission of the fact that a policy of engagement for the last three years has not been achieved in pushing Colombo to do all that it could for the Tamil population and hence time is ripe for a course correction.

Impact on Bilateral Ties

Sri Lankan foreign ministry ruled out any impact of the UNHRC vote on the New Delhi-Colombo ties. New Delhi too hoped that the historical ties would flourish in spite of India’s stand. Even then, a minor impact can not be ruled out. The rise of Chinese influence in Sri Lanka in the form of development of the Hambantota port has aroused New Delhi’s concern about this constituent of the Chinese ‘string of pearls’ strategy. Many in India also feel that Sri Lanka is perfecting the art of playing the China card to extract favourable policies from New Delhi.

Much would, thus, depend on whether India pursues the UNHRC vote to its logical conclusion, in the face of an obdurate reaction from Colombo. Prime Minister Singh had rationalised India’s decision as one that would protect the dignity of the Tamil population. It remains to be seen whether India’s concern for the Tamil population continues beyond the bold decision of 22 March or stops with this show piece demonstration. And for those who believe in the ‘domestic politics theory’, it is a test case to judge the limits of such a phenomenon.

From Sri Lanka’s point of view, it is unlikely that the Mahinda Rajpaksa government would let the bilateral ties between the two nations run into a cold phase. As the dust settles, Colombo would be grateful to New Delhi for having toned down the wordings and intensity of the resolution. It is now time for Sri Lanka to rethink its actions for the past three years. The choice for Colombo is between reform and addressing the genuine grievances of the Tamil population, and withdrawing into a shell- a la Myanmar and continuing the same policies which has brought about the present fate on itself. When a wind of change has started blowing all across Myanmar, it would be highly imprudent for Colombo not to see wisdom in a make over.

This article was also published at IPCS:


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