As expected, India has voted in favour of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution that was seen as implicitly critical of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s handling of the last stages of its fight against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or the Tamil Tigers was definitely brutal, but the Tamil Tigers were responsible for herding civilians into the kill zone as human shields and they are primarily responsible for the consequences that followed. And that was only one in a long litany of serial brutality that the Tamil Tigers engaged in, which included the assassinations of political opponents, forcible recruitment of child soldiers and, of course, the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Thus, if we are to apportion blame, there is plenty to go around.
But strategic policy cannot be judged on such terms. Its primary purpose is to serve Indian interests. What is distressing about the Indian decision is not just that it does not serve Indian interests, but that the key reason for the decision was not even the pursuit of national interest but rather narrow domestic political interests: prevent additional ally trouble for the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. Thus, the Indian government has adopted a key foreign policy decision for the crassest of political motives - to hang on in power.
Not only does the decision makes little strategic sense, it has the potential to seriously hurt India’s relationship with Sri Lanka, which has been one of the few states in the region with which India has managed to improve ties over the last two decades. Colombo has usually been understanding about New Delhi’s Tamil compulsion, especially because many of the coalition governments that have ruled in Delhi have had either some Tamil member parties in the coalition and/or have had national parties hoping to improve their electoral fortunes in Tamil Nadu. Colombo has been sensitive to India’s concerns about its relationship with both China and Pakistan, and tried to keep them at arm’s length. It is possible that Colombo would once again be forbearing, understanding that the feckless government in Delhi is simply bowing yet again to domestic political blackmail. But New Delhi should not take such forbearance for granted.
Will this decision at least help the Tamils? Kanimozhi, a Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) Member of Parliament, gushed on television that the lives of Tamils have already started to ’look up’ with the Indian vote. Don’t bet on it. In the short-term, this vote is only likely to make the lives of ordinary Sri Lankan Tamils harder. Indeed, according to reports, Karunanidhi, Kanimozhi’s father and the leader of the DMK, was already warning the central government that Sri Lankan Tamils might be attacked in response to the UNHRC vote and asking India to help. Tamil activists, both in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka are also unlikely to be mollified - they recognize that this represents no fundamental change in Indian policy, and will continue to see India as complicit in the suffering of the Tamils. In short, India will have antagonised Colombo, but it would have won no brownie points in Jaffna.
But India’s strategic folly would once again rebound to China’s and Pakistan’s advantage. Both Beijing and Islamabad have long recognized that the gross imbalance of power in the South Asian region in India’s favour is a strategic boon because it represents a natural threat to the smaller states in the region which could be exploited. This fear, occasionally deepened by India’s diplomatic missteps, have made the smaller South Asian states - including Sri Lanka - seek external sources of strategic comfort. They have not always received such support in the past but as Sino-Indian competition grows in the Asian region, expect both India and China to play in each other’s neighbourhood. India is particularly vulnerable to such strategic gambits, and it has just handicapped itself unnecessarily.
New Delhi’s defence, that this vote was in defence of human rights, is laughable given its track record in standing up for human rights in international institutions. India has an unblemished record of standing with some of the most thuggish and totalitarian regimes in the world, for decades, rather than defending the people who these regimes oppress. Even in the most recent case, in Syria, India’s support for the draft UN Security Council resolution in February - which was subsequently vetoed by Russia and China - was accompanied by a mealy-mouthed defence that essentially defended the brutal Syrian repression by equating it with the armed opposition. Indeed, the only reason that India supported the resolution on Syria - India had abstained from a similar resolution a few months earlier - was because of the strong reaction from Arab states. Though India’s ultimate decision was strategically sound because it preserved India’s ties with Arab states, India’s justification of the vote was a true reflection of India’s normal attitude towards human rights versus state rights - that human rights is less important than the preservation of the boundaries of sovereignty and state rights. Therefore, to now justify the vote against Sri Lanka as a defence of human rights does not wash.
None of this is to suggest that human rights should be the basis of India’s policy. India’s policy should be based on India’s strategic interest and this will vary with circumstance. Thus India’s refusal to support the human rights plank when it came to Myanmar, and employing it in the case of Syria are both strategically justifiable. In the Myanmar case, India had vital interests both in balancing Chinese influence in Myanmar and in garnering Myanmar’s support to fight various Northeast Indian insurgent groups which had made bases across the India-Myanmar border. Indian sympathies might have been with the democracy activists in Myanmar but India could not let democracy-promotion and human rights concerns dictate its policy. Similarly, supporting the UNSC resolution against the brutal Syrian regime was not dictated by human rights concerns but because India had essential interests to protect both among the Gulf Arab states and in Washington.
Over the medium term, this vote possibly signals the increasing vulnerability of national interests to regional interests dictated by the necessity of coalition politics. Since national governments are likely to be coalition governments for the foreseeable future, this can only be a cause for concern.
(The writer is a Professor at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University)
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