Why India is right on Sri Lanka

Unless Colombo treats its Tamil citizens with dignity and respect, New Delhi will continue to have limited options

Updated - June 13, 2016 02:02 pm IST

Published - April 09, 2013 02:12 am IST

Contemporary developments in India’s foreign policy are often based on perceptions and not facts, views divorced from reality and political advocacy based on make-believe. India’s approach to the Sri Lankan issue and the vote in the Human Rights Council (HRC) is a case in point. Variously described as a “new low” in our foreign policy and a departure from our principled stand of not supporting country-specific resolutions, this line of reasoning suggests that New Delhi should ignore and overrule regional sentiment, and refrain from meddling in the affairs of a small neighbour.

But first the perceptions. One, in 1956, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias (SWRD) Bandaranaike enacted the Sinhala-Only Act. Sections of the political class in New Delhi welcomed it as a consolidation of anti-imperialist sentiment. Years later, Tamils were reduced to second-class citizens and discrimination against them became systemic and entrenched. The anti-Tamil riots in Colombo following the killing of the Mayor of Jaffna, Alfred Duriappa, by a young Prabhakaran led to the rise of Tamil militancy.

Perception two. Most Sinhalese believe, with good reason, that Tamil militancy, rightly viewed by them as terrorism, would not have succeeded in tearing apart Sri Lanka’s social fabric but for support from across the Palk Straits. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi sought course correction. He committed India to Sri Lanka’s unity and territorial integrity. This fundamental turnaround meant India would not support the break-up of Sri Lanka and would also cooperate in ending support for terrorism. There was, however, one caveat. The Tamil minority should be treated with dignity and as equal citizens of a multicultural, multiple-ethnic and multilingual Sri Lanka.

Resolution was minimalist

What the international community is questioning is not Colombo’s military operation against the LTTE or human rights violations but specific allegations of war crimes during the last 100 days of military operations. Visual documentation, including by triumphant victors on mobile phones has contributed to Sri Lanka’s discomfort. The U.S. resolution at the 19th session of the HRC in March 2012 was a minimalist attempt. It invited Sri Lanka to act on the recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. Even the assistance to be made available to Colombo would have been provided only with its consent. Instead, Colombo chose to prevaricate. With additional visual documentation being made available, the demand for accountability gained momentum. Having voted in favour of the resolution in March 2012, it was next to impossible for India to change its vote in March 2013, especially in the absence of any credible steps by Sri Lanka towards reconciliation and devolution.

It is both in India’s and Sri Lanka’s interest to get a full and final closure on these allegations. Not to do so will allow the wounds to fester.

Sovereignty has never succeeded in providing a cover against genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. To suggest that India does not support country-specific resolutions is absurd. Even more, that we have a principled position on this. In any perceived clash between principle and national interest, it is invariably the latter that is invoked and reigns supreme. Following the anti-Tamil riots in Colombo in 1983, New Delhi mustered sufficient courage to spearhead a resolution against Sri Lanka in the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities. We vote in favour of similar resolutions against Israel only because they deal with gross and systematic violations of human rights of Palestinian people in the occupied territories. We have never hesitated to take a position on country-specific resolutions whether on DPRK or Iran, whenever our national interest so demanded.

To dismiss popular sentiment in Tamil Nadu as the machinations of politicians is both a misreading of the situation and a recipe for disaster. Why should Sri Lanka not be held to account for not respecting understandings given bilaterally to India, such as those of April-May 2009?

13th Amendment

India can be against the LTTE but cannot afford to be against the Tamils. The problem both amongst the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka and large sections of the Tamil population in India, is that the LTTE successfully manipulated Tamil opinion by projecting itself as the only physical shield against Sinhala repression. We cannot wish away this sentiment. The only safeguard for the Tamils in Sri Lanka is delivery of the promised devolution based on the 13th Amendment.

Both the AIADMK and the DMK, along with the smaller parties in Tamil Nadu are on the same page on the Sri Lanka issue. The problem will continue to fester till Colombo has a genuine change of heart. Recent signals are anything but encouraging. Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa said on March 27, 2013: “Could we afford to have a provincial administration here, which pointed a gun at the national leadership at the drop of a hat? We don’t want to be at the mercy of scheming provincial administrations.” Let alone the 13th Amendment, the Defence Secretary seems to be suggesting the winding up of provincial councils altogether!

Notwithstanding assurances to India, the “Brothers” running Sri Lanka appear to have no intention to move on political reconciliation and devolution. This “majoritarianism” in total disregard of respecting and protecting the rights of minorities is a narrow and calibrated political strategy designed to safeguard Sinhalese parliamentary strength. The recent attacks on the Muslim trading community in the heart of Colombo by fanatic Sinhalese, allegedly led by Buddhist monks are manifestations of similar callous and cynical disregard for the rights of linguistic, religious and cultural minorities. India did the right thing by supporting the resolution on war crimes.

Exaggerated projections of Chinese inroads and influence are a bogey which many of our smaller neighbours periodically try on us. Apart from being practical, the Chinese are also hard headed. They will pursue economic and commercial opportunity irrespective of the way India votes. Support for Sri Lanka up to 2012 did not prevent them from looking for commercial projects there. Many Chinese successes have something to do with our own inability to deliver commercial projects on time.

Sri Lanka is not only India’s closest neighbour but in many respects, culturally and emotionally, closest to us as well. We need to reach out to Colombo and drive home the point that it takes two to tango. Relations between countries are assiduously built, step by step. Unless Colombo treats its Tamil citizens with dignity and respect, New Delhi will continue to have limited options. If New Delhi continues to base its choices on misplaced “perceptions” and does not effectively articulate the reasons for the choices so made, only brickbats will be in the offing.

(Hardeep S. Puri is India’s former Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York.)

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