Originally Published 2013-03-22 00:00:00 Published on Mar 22, 2013
In not agreeing to have a parliamentary resolution against Sri Lanka, the Parliament has demonstrated where politics ends and policy-making on a sensitive area as external affairs and neighbourhood relations begin.
Foreign policy: Regional issues and national concerns
Despite outgoing DMK partner's demand for a parliamentary resolution on the post-war ethnic situation in Sri Lanka, most political parties, including those from other regions, have refused to be tempted into taking yet another pot-shot at the Government of the day, which anyway was suffering one embarrassment after another on a host of issues and fronts for months, if not years, now. In doing so, the Parliament has demonstrated where politics ends and policy-making on a sensitive area as external affairs and neighbourhood relations begin.

The DMK's demand seemed aimed at the US resolution on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC, Geneva, where the party wanted India to put forth last-minute amendments to the final draft of the co-sponsors. The party had been demanding Indian intervention from the very beginning, but its proposals had changed with each passing day. If anything the calibrated demand(s) reflected the street-sentiments in native Tamil Nadu, which in turn borrowed excessively from the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora's sentiments and strategies than on the ground realities in that country.

In declaring their decision against any parliamentary resolution on Sri Lanka at a late-evening meeting convened by Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, most political parties in the country made out a few points. One, they were not in favour of any 'country-specific resolution' in the Indian legislature. Two, they were drawing the traditional dividing-line that has existed under the Indian Constitution, between the powers of the Legislature and Executive on the one hand, and between the Centre and the State, on the other.

In this particular case, as many others pertaining to Sri Lanka, not just the past DMK partner in the Government at the Centre, but Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa also had repeatedly demanded Indian diplomatic initiative and intervention at the international-level. By supporting the larger 'Sri Lankan Tamil cause' on an earlier occasions in both Houses of Parliament, and yet not yielding ground for a parliamentary resolution, political parties, barring those from Tamil Nadu, have clearly drawn the distinction when it was beginning to be blurred.

Most regional parties, other than those from Tamil Nadu, joined the national parties like the Congress and the BJP in opposing a parliamentary resolution. Included in the list was the ruling Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, which not very long ago had taken a tough stand on the 'Teesta water-sharing agreement' with Bangladesh, and embarrassed the nation by boycotting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's official visit to that country, at the head of a rare delegation of Chief Ministers from border-States in India.

Considering that Teesta got a positive mention during the more recent Bangladesh visit of President Pranab Mukherjee, it is likely that the Trinamool Congress has seen reason on the specifics of the issue on hand. By opposing the subsequent move for a parliamentary resolution on Sri Lanka in India, the party too seemed to have studied the constitutional nuances and diplomatic realities involved in foreign policy-making and the exclusive powers of the Centre in such matters.

'Dictating terms', to what end

Post-vote at Geneva, Indian media reports have indicated that New Delhi sought to propose amendments to America's final draft, possibly aimed at wooing back the DMK into the fold, as some would suspect. It was obvious to any close observer of the Tamil Nadu scene that it would not be the case, anyway. Yet, by reportedly rejecting the Indian demand, favouring a larger acceptance for the resolution at the UNHRC, and cutting across continents, the US may have shown that global policies are not always dictated on the streets of any country, or any particular region, Province or State.

More importantly, it showed that New Delhi's considered view on the subject from the very beginning was after all the right way to approach the issue. Governments cannot conduct international diplomacy and strategise for the same as INGOs and political groups do. Governments move motions in international fora, to win, not just to record its positions, reservations or opposition. It is here that Sri Lanka too may have faltered, twice in 12 months at the UNHRC. Keeping the flock together and containing the abstentions to earlier level, at eight, is what the sole super-power in the US too would not want to risk.

In the past, the two 'Dravidian majors' in Tamil Nadu used to resist the temptation of directly addressing foreign Governments, including that in Sri Lanka. This time round, they over-stepped it. On the one hand, the DMK-led 'Tamil Eelam Supporters Organisation' (TESO) canvassed for a harsher resolution even before the first draft was available, by meeting with Delhi-based diplomats of voting member-nations. The TESO delegation also visited the UN and the UNHRC.

Secondly, the TESO, the DMK and the rest of the Tamil Nadu polity sought to pressure New Delhi into seeking to influence a host of nation with voting rights at the UNHRC this time, to come with a stronger message to Sri Lanka. Street-protests by various groups, political party demands and resolutions, self-immolations all became a part of the process. The UNHRC showed that international diplomacy is played out at a different level altogether, and is often aimed not at confrontation but at possible consensus.

'Genocide' and not

The DMK's demand did not stop with the form. It dictated even the content of the UNHRC resolution, and the independent resolution in the Indian Parliament that it had mooted. The party wanted the term 'genocide' used in UNHRC resolution to describe 'civilian killings' in Sri Lanka's 'Eelam War IV'. It did not seem to have been briefed about the status and application of a harsh statement as 'genocide', and its overall consequences, now and later. It is possibly one of the amendments that even the US and EU co-sponsors of the Sri Lanka resolution would not buy at the UNHRC.

Be it the idea of a Parliament resolution and the usage of the term 'genocide', DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi seemed to be drawing upon the 1983 experience in the Sri Lankan context. Intervening in a parliamentary debate on the infamous 'anti-Tamil pogrom' in Sri Lanka in July that year, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi described it as 'genocide' and demanded immediate stoppage.

It is this, along with the Indian intervention in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 that has endeared Indira Gandhi to the Sri Lankan Tamils. Little do they acknowledge that they do not require a Indira Gandhi in the Sri Lankan context. They did not deserve a Prabhakaran, either. Nor did India deserve Rajiv Gandhi's assassination at the hands of Prabhakaran and his LTTE. What the pan-Tamil groups in India often forget is that India helped the Sri Lankan Tamils as much as the Bangladeshis, but the former would have none of it on terms acceptable to all stake-holders.

Indira Gandhi used the strong term possibly to send out a stronger message to the Sri Lankan Government of the day to end the mayhem, forthwith. It cannot be confused with the present-day context, when in international fora it has a different connotation, altogether. Taken to its logical conclusion and the realities of the situation, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, it would lead to a situation in which the Tamils in that country would ultimately be suffering more than already. The geo-strategic realities too could also be over-looked only to put the Tamils in Sri Lanka to greater peril, nearer home and in their Diaspora homes.

'Genocide' apart, the demands for the withdrawal of armed forces from Tamil areas in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka too needs to be considered with caution. A country like India, where there is the constant demand for the withdrawal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act has been reverberating from across the border-States in the North and the North-East, cannot preach to others what it is afraid of practising - and for valid reasons. At the end of the day, the security apparatus in each country - and not outsiders -- is capable of, and is burdened with the task of assessing threats to national security and addressing them. Indian and international concerns could address excesses of the kind that had marked military presence in Sri Lanka's Tamil areas, pre-pogrom.

For a 'global village'

All this however still throws up the question for political parties in India, their law-makers and constitutional experts and other practitioners to address. Given the complexity of the emerging 'global village', where information is at the finger-tip, but not the required analytical skills, compounded for India in turn by the diversities that make for the unity of the nation-State, how should and how far regional aspirations should and could be accommodated in foreign and security policy-making, over the short, medium and long terms?

Constituency-driven politics apart, wherein cadres and communities get influenced easily, there is still an urgent need for greater national discourse and internal confidence-building measures (CBM) if foreign and security policies do not have to suffer at the hands of street-protests. The voter-influence on policy-making is also beginning to be felt, to a greater or lesser extent, and the ubiquitous 'Tamil Nadu factor' in India's Sri Lanka policy, while not being decisive, is still there.

In the present case, Sri Lanka has become a 'UNHRC case' for some more time to come. Every March and September, Geneva will be seized of the matter. Seeking to influence the decision-making processes in Geneva is a necessity for the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora. It cannot be allowed to denigrate into a past-time nearer home in India - where not stopping with Tamil Nadu, political Delhi also got involved up to a point, and ended up sending all wrong signals to all concerned.

Foreign policy has to be a transparent affair - like India's declared position on non-intervention in the internal affairs of other nations. Foreign policy-making cannot be as transparent, though there may be a greater urgency for incorporating political elements even at the planning stage. Foreign policy-implementation cannot however be done through Parliament, least of all on the streets. These realities need to be understood at all levels - and made to be understood, as well.

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

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