India’s decision to vote in favor of a United States sponsored UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution censuring the Sri Lankan government for alleged Human Rights aberration during the ethnic conflict has raised several eyebrows.
The sudden eagerness on the part of New Delhi to dump the stated policy of abstaining on country specific strictures in international forum is attributed to the Indian government’s coalition exigencies. After all it is a fairly open secret that the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime’s diplomatic maneuver on the Tamil issue has all along been orchestrated by New Delhi despite a standing Sri Lankan foreign policy objective of creating and exploiting a wedge between the administration in New Delhi, dominated mostly by upper caste Brahmins and the Dravidians residing in the southern tip of the sub-continent. Colombo has for long perceived its connection with Southern India as the primary source of a perennial concern to Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity. As gentle persuasion led to nothing but exasperation three years down the line post civil war, the astute Rajapaksa wasted no time in exploring possibilities in the massive victory that the Sri Lankan Armed Forces gained over the dreaded Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Encashing the Sinhala sentiment, he got himself re-elected for a second term and even tinkered with the Constitution to get rid of the bar that prevents him from contesting future presidential polls. As the Indian government continued lending crucial diplomatic support to the ruling dispensation in Colombo, the president seemed disinclined to grant the Tamil minorities any elbow space to function as equal citizens in a country split vertically on racial line. Some insignificant progress based on the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission recommendation thus remain an untenable excuse for any Indian prime minister to allow a free flow of aid and assistance running into billions of dollar.
Despite the significant foreign policy adjustment that many believe were undertaken ignoring the present geo-political realities, India continues to remain a principled ally of the island nation. It was at New Delhi’s behest, the UNHRC resolution was adequately amended before adopting a sugar coated version that acknowledges the inherent right of the Sri Lankan government over its citizens’ welfare. However, the Indian leadership miffed by President Rajapaksa’s continued defiance on enhancing the powers of devolution beyond the scope of the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution actually wanted to rap Colombo in the knuckles. A cornered regime is expected to be more amenable to a gradual reform process in order to withstand further international retribution which might be even more intrusive and punitive. It remains to be seen how far the gamble has paid off especially when India seems to be experiencing goose bumps over her relationship with the immediate neighbors. Domestic political compulsion have already derailed the growing Indo-Bangladesh bonhomie with a longstanding friend of India like Sheikh Hasina Wajed feeling betrayed due to the cancellation of river water accord. Even Bhutan has gone back on a pledge of allowing India to use her territory for constructing a strategically significant connecting road near the Chinese frontier. In fact asymmetrical power equation has traditionally been a trigger for the smaller nations in India’s South Asian neighborhood to suspect New Delhi’s motive. There is no denying the fact that perception of threat remains historically intrinsic to any relationship that exists between a small and big power. Furthermore, for New Delhi this subtle coercion applied through the balanced UNHRC resolution is expected to yield dividend as far as Sri Lanka’s blooming relationship with China is concerned. The Sri Lankan leadership’s enthusiasm in embracing Beijing and India’s bete noire Pakistan actually made the Indian foreign policy establishment ruffle up its feathers in anger. China’s $100 million yearly military aid package including offensive hardware like fighter aircraft, anti aircraft guns, artillery weapons along with an increased involvement of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence to mount surveillance on LTTE movements did not go down well with the Indian security apparatus. Colombo’s shopping spree across the world capitals for sophisticated armory to consolidate its military strength, allowing the Israeli counter intelligence agency Mossad to have a foot print in the island’s troubled north across Palk Strait and hiring British mercenaries to train Sri Lankan soldiers in guerrilla warfare tactics were perceived to be a strategic threat for India. Through a systematic effort to erode India’s regional pre-eminence, Colombo actually ended up bolstering China’s aggressive diplomacy of counterbalancing New Delhi’s influence on regional geopolitics. Consequently, in spite of not being a part of South Asia technically, Beijing has successfully established its grip over the strategically significant Indian Ocean region.
Given India’s nationalistic heritage and a legacy of nurturing anti-colonialism sentiment, it would be virtually impossible for any elected government to turn a blind eye to the plight of the minority Tamil population in Sri Lanka for long. The establishment in New Delhi strongly felt that a viable solution to the ethnic imbroglio can be achieved through genuine devolution of police, financial and land use power to the provincial councils. However, Colombo’s antipathy toward the West and a growing eagerness to nurture new friends has to be factored into any future policy initiative on this score. Sri Lanka is not averse to tying up with donors in the Far East replacing the Western nations, possessing a habit of sermonizing recipients on moral standards. Also, India must leverage its quiet yet effective role of keeping the Tamil constituents in check during the fag end of the fourth Eelam war to influence President Rajapaksa into admitting the war excesses and have him initiate appropriate remedial action. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh needs to impress upon the point that the fight against the LTTE during the penultimate stages of the civil war had degenerated into an unethical one whereby even civilian population waiving white flags were brutally eliminated. As a responsible State, Sri Lanka has the obligation of delivering justice. Last but not the least, the tendency to hurl vitriolic abuse on anybody questioning the conduct of some officials during the course of the conflict will vitiate the atmosphere further. It is time for the political leadership in the island nation to display statesmanship in rooting out the trust deficit that has penetrated deep into the Lankan psyche and give the Tamils an opportunity to be a part of nation building as an equal partner.
This article was also published at Arab News
About the author: Seema Sengupta
Seema Sengupta is a Calcutta based journalist and columnist. She is a recipient of National Award for Excellence in appreciation of excellent services rendered in the field of Freelance Journalism. Her columns are published regularly in international and national publications like Arab News, The Guardian, The Age, The Korea Times, South Asia Journal, Muscat Daily, South China Morning Post, Eurasia Review, Asia Times Online, The Bengal Post, The Tribune, The Pioneer, The Telegraph, The Asian Age among others and syndicated globally.