Originally Published 2012-03-20 00:00:00 Published on Mar 20, 2012
With the UNHRC vote only days away, it was not a total give-away by India. The Prime Minister's statement in the Parliament implied that the tinkered second draft of the US Resolution too did not meet Indian expectations.
A new 'incline' in India's Sri Lanka policy?
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s declaration in Parliament that India was ’inclined’ to vote in favour of the US-sponsored Sri Lanka resolution at the UNHRC meeting in Geneva has far-reaching consequences, going beyond seeking to ensure ethnic equity/equality in the island-nation. The initial Sri Lankan reaction is as nuanced as the Indian statement, and a clearer picture may emerge only after the Geneva vote, when Colombo does a cost-and-effect analysis and draws conclusions on the role of individual players, starting with the self.

India was "inclined to vote in favour of the US resolution if it covers our objectives, namely the achievement of a future for the Tamil community in Sri Lanka based on equality, dignity, justice and self-respect," the Prime Minister told the Lok Sabha. "We are still waiting for the final draft, but we intend to vote in its favour," he added. "India has asked the Sri Lankan Government to stand by its commitment to broaden the dialogue with political parties, including the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), to achieve forward looking and meaningful devolution of power."

With the UNHRC vote only days away, it was not a total give-away by India. Singh’s statement implied that the tinkered second draft of the US resolution too did not meet Indian expectations. While India was for the ’achievement of a future for the Tamil community in Sri Lanka’, Singh has indicated a reiteration of the known Indian position that the TNA was not ’the’ only stake-holder with which the Colombo Government should be negotiating a political solution, but only ’a’ party to the pending process.

During his January visit to Sri Lanka, External Affairs Minister S M Krishna had mentioned the Sri Lankan Government move for the setting up of a Parliament Select Committee (PSC) as a possible way-out. The TNA was opposed to it. Clearly, India still wants internal domestic processes in Sri Lanka to find a way-out of the post-war ethnic impasse, without international intervention. Translated, New Delhi would want the ’technical assistance’ clause in the US draft deleted, so that the UNHRC did not have an external role, as visualised by the sponsors of the resolution.

It is mostly procedural thus, but it remains to be seen if the US would be in a mood to accommodate Indian sentiments, New Delhi having committed itself a little too early in the game. Less than a week earlier, the Government had told the Parliament that it would take a position only closer to the UNHRC vote and that no date had been fixed for the same. The Singh posit now means that India would vote for the resolution if it addressed the emerging concerns of Sri Lanka, but would have little option but to ’abstain’, otherwise. The US strategy would have provided for both.

’Tamil Nadu factor’ and sentiments

Presumably, the traditional ’Tamil Nadu factor’ was behind the perceived shift in the Indian position over the past weeks. The polity and society in Tamil Nadu may be ignorant about the ground realities, based on historic shifts that seldom get mentioned in literature and propaganda on the subject over the decades. Yet, their concerns for the Tamils of Sri Lanka, not always centred on the ’Tamil political cause’ are genuine and for real.

While there is no denying the ’competitive Dravidian politics’ as among the pressures working on New Delhi from time to time over the past decades, the mood of the political leadership of the State along with that of major sections of the polity during the closing months of ’Eelam War-IV’ cannot be discounted, either. In context, AIADMK Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s criticism of Prime Minister Singh’s announcement as aimed at helping her DMK bête noire M Karunanidhi "in ending his deceitful drama" of a proposed fast on March 22, a day ahead of the scheduled date for UNHRC vote, is a part of the continuing saga of unending political competition.

For now, however, the DMK and the AIADMK, between themselves, may have rescued the ’Sri Lankan issue’ from the hands of rabid groups nearer home that had completely hijacked the post-war ’Tamil cause’ in the island-nation, in aid of the unending agenda of the pro-LTTE elements from within the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora. Given their priorities and perceptions, the latter can be expected to compromise their political relevance in the emerging context to sub-serve their larger cause. Without a resolution to Sri Lanka’s ’national problem’, this could mean that the pro-LTTE parties and groups in Tamil Nadu would continue to keep up the pressure on the mainline, if that would serve a purpose.

MDMK’s Vaiko has said that the current Indian stand on the Geneva resolution was a ’cover-up for the sins’ committed during ’Eelam War-IV’. Another of the pan-Tamil protagonists, ’Naam Tamilar’ party leader and film-maker Seeman has said near-similar things. However, the overall mood in the State has changed for the positive in relation to the Government of India. Any forward movement would depend on how and how far Sri Lanka is willing to go in addressing the ’national problem’, whether or not New Delhi is involved.

From Sri Lanka, TNA spokesman Suresh Premachandran has laid the credit for the nuanced Indian stand at the doorstep of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. The TNA reaction was to the possible exclusion of the DMK, whose threat to withdraw from the Manmohan Singh Government mattered even more in political terms. In continuing the existing dialogue with the TNA, the Centre has thus been handed down the possibility of having to route it through the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister. It is one thing for the Centre to take the State and its polity on board, and another to work through the regional polity and Government. The consequences in the past should remain a guiding-principle.

Reading the Indian message

Belatedly, Sri Lanka seemed to have read the Indian message even before it was read out by New Delhi. According to media reports, Presidential spokesperson Bandula Jayasekara would not comment on the new Indian position as there was "still time for developments to take place". India’s was thus a signal for Colombo to revist its evolving strategy at Geneva, in the absence of which hard-line sections in the West had robbed the initiative that would have been that of friends of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan media has quoted Cabinet Spokesman and Acting Media Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena saying that the US resolution did not refer to war crimes, but inter alia called for "another team" to monitor the implementation of the LLRC’s recommendations, which was where the problem arose. Minister Abeywardena’s observations pre-dated Prime Minister Singh’s statement. Around the time, President Mahinda Rajapaksa had reiterated that no external power had helped Sri Lanka during the last phases of ’Eelam War IV’.

President Rajapaksa’s statement was possibly aimed at the growing ranks of pan-Tamil hard-liners in the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu, who wanted more and more people in the country to believe that New Delhi had gone all out on Sri Lanka’s side to finish off the LTTE, and thus the innocent Tamils in Sri Lanka, too. Shorn of competitive reaching-out for the world to remember the landmark release of 300,000 Tamils held as human-shield by the LTTE and credible measures at political reconciliation eternally, the silent good work done by the Sri Lankan Government on the rehabilitation and reconstruction work, again without much international aid and the least of ’technical assistance’ from the West and the rest, too does not seem to have served any additional purpose, externally.

The Sri Lankan Government has been cautious about not coming up with any hasty to the Indian statement. From within the country, the TNA, as expected, welcomed New Delhi’s stand while the ’Sinhala nationalist’ JVP equally lost no time to declare that "India never supported Sri Lanka in its efforts to solve the national question". Anti-India since inception in the mid-Sixties, the JVP is in urgent need of an external issue to prop up the party’s sagging support-base after domestic issues internal dissidence have failed the party. It may have consequences with their after-effects and consequent spill-off, which the Sri Lankan State and security agencies are well aware of.

India’s implied ’objectives’

Prime Minister Singh has linked the Indian vote at Geneva to the resolution meeting New Delhi’s "objectives". Implied in it is the concern for the continued safety and security of the Tamils living in post-war Sri Lanka, as against the Diaspora Tamils, most of whose unilateral agenda has no place in the Indian scheme. It is thus paramount that the US sponsor of the Geneva resolution ensures that the fallout did not have consequences that New Delhi apprehends and the Diaspora would not mind, if it would sub-serve their own purpose.

Linked to the Indian apprehensions that may not have been spelt out by New Delhi are also the inevitable consequences of such consequences for and in Tamil Nadu. Such a turn could complicate matters for New Delhi on the domestic front. By extension it could affect bilateral relations, which has stabilised only in recent years after decades of mutual mistrust caused by the ethnic issue, war and violence. In the short-term, however, it has stabilised the situation in Tamil Nadu. Over the medium-term, it would however depend not on Colombo-centric decisions by New Delhi, but would be dictated by events and developments in Sri Lanka, and the mood and methods of the pro-LTTE sections of the Diaspora Tamils.

In his week-end reaction to the emerging scenario in Geneva, Minister Abyewardena said that Sri Lanka was not sure if it would "win or lose" the Geneva vote. If it lost the vote, the burgeoning political pressure on the Government could increase. Already, livelihood issues like price-rise, inflation, employment and increment have all begun capturing the imagination of the common man. If the promises to the people on this and on the UNHRC score are not met with performance, the leadership will have little choice to deflect criticism to an external element. Along with the US, India could end up taking the blame. It could well be independent of the evolving Indian vote at Geneva.

Reading the Geneva vote

A victory for Sri Lanka at Geneva against all odds now could have consequences nearer home, particularly for by-now Diaspora-driven Tamils. A lost vote could have consequences for the Government, with medium-term fallout in Parliament, going beyond debates and disturbances. This could well call for the Government having to address the immediate issues concerning prices and power situation. The latter may have re-emerged as an eternal problem all across South Asia and much of the rest of the world, with consequences on the price front, but it remains as much a live political issue as it is an economic issue.

The emerging scenario, post-vote, should set the Colombo dispensation to re-think its approach to the ’national problem’, for more reasons than one. A vote for or against the resolution at Geneva would either embolden the Diaspora Tamils or encourage their embedded misgivings about the international community’s willingness to intercede on their behalf but in Sri Lanka. There is little to choose from. Coupled with a hard-fought vote at Geneva, it could sent out wrong signals to the domestic constituency that there was more to winning the war than keeping it, and that there could have been more to ’Eelam War IV’ than the political leadership.

The ’China factor’

The temptation for a section of the strategic community in India to read a ’China hand’ in the bilateral context involving Sri Lanka may have no meaning at this stage. Yet, the ’China factor’ could become a reality if the anticipated drift in India-Sri Lanka relations reached a point of no-return, and the US emerges as the big bully in the immediate Indian Ocean neighbourhood in the Sri Lankan eyes with India seen as politically weak and militarily incapable of stalling the process.

An Indian vote in Geneva could be seen in Colombo also in this context. By then, decision-makers in Sri Lanka may have forgotten the immediate circumstances involving the inherent inability of the Colombo dispensation to resolve their ’national problem’ and the consequent political pressures on New Delhi from inside India, too -- which did not stop with the Tamil Nadu factor this time, but had a unison of political voices in Parliament, and accompanied as they were by other attendant political troubles for Singh’s coalition Government, flowing from Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s West Bengal in particular.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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