Originally Published 2014-04-14 06:17:17 Published on Apr 14, 2014
Over and above the stated causes, reasons and justification, the Indian 'abstention' on the anti-Sri Lanka vote at the UNHRC this time was a 'message' in itself. Intended or otherwise, the 'message' was for the West-dominated 'international community' on the one hand, and the Sri Lankan stakeholders on the other.
India's Sri Lanka abstention: A message for West
"Over and above the stated causes, reasons and justification, the Indian 'abstention' on the anti-Sri Lanka vote at the UNHRC this time was a 'message' in itself. Intended or otherwise, the 'message' was for the West-dominated 'international community' on the one hand, and the Sri Lankan stakeholders on the other.

The message for the international community was as much for the Anglo-American allies in the Indian Ocean geo-strategic context as for the Chinese neighbour wanting to assume a larger-than-life image, if not role, starting with the immediate South Asian neighbourhood. Through unilateral initiatives in India's 'traditional sphere of influence', the West has not only challenged India's authority in the region but also contributed to destabilising the neighbourhood, which India cannot afford, now or ever.

The trend needs to be arrested first, and reversed, too, before it became too late. That alone would ensure that the Indian Ocean neighbourhood shared by India and Sri Lanka remained still and not troubled more than already. The latter owed to extra-regional reasons, and extra-political issues like global economic security.

This year's 'abstention', without India opening up its mind early on, and thus influencing other voting-members at the UNHRC, is a signal on the shape of things to come. Going beyond this year's abstention, the well-negotiated Indian position on keeping the LLRC as the benchmark for 'accountability issues' in Sri Lanka in the US-sponsored Geneva resolutions in 2012 and 2013 will stand the test of time.

Before the West began clinging on to 'accountability issues' in Sri Lanka without reference to their own commitments in and on Iraq and Afghanistan, China was the bogeyman for India. The 'String of Pearls' theory told Indian policy-makers how China was using its economic power to hold India's neighbours, far and near, hostage to Chinese investments over the short, medium and long terms. That way, the US is on par with Sri Lanka, in terms of Chinese investments - and worse, possibly in economic terms sans politics, diplomacy and military.

If India felt that the US and the rest were trying to play the 'China Act' even without the kind of investments - and the consequent commitments - that the Chinese are making in neighbourhood nations like Sri Lanka, the anxiety is not misplaced. India has to be absolutely cautious to the possibility of China using money power as leverage in their shared neighbourhood, for wielding political and diplomatic power, leading to the possibility of military concessions.

In the case of the US and the rest, the political weapon they have launched against Sri Lanka for now is both cost-effective and investments-insulated. Finer aspects of having to protect one's investments, if political and diplomatic efforts would not lead to military concessions, if sought, would always weigh in China's mind.

The West does not have such commitments even, and can pull the plug either on the Tamils, or on the Sri Lankan Government, or Sri Lanka as a nation, at will. When perceived, altruism in the case of some Western nations fails to impress anyone more than already, compromises may be arrived at, commutations worked out and concessions granted or withdrawn. Both the Government and the Tamils left behind in the country and their political and societal leaderships needed to apprehend the possibilities and act accordingly, from now on at the very least.

Stand-alone affair

Inside and outside India, the Indian abstention is being attributed at times to 'intrusive' human rights investigations of the proposed kind in and on Jammu and Kashmir, north-eastern Indian States and the like. The unilateral Anglo-American initiative without reference to India at an early stage may even prima facie justify such an argument. Yet, the Indian decision seems to be a stand-alone affair.

India might not have conceived a situation such as the one at the UNHRC this year when it voted for the American resolutions in the two preceding years. If reports were to be believed, Indian negotiators had insisted on making the LLRC Report as the beginning and end of all UNHRC resolutions in the past. Such reports had also claimed that India did not have any help or suggestions from Sri Lanka at the time. India's thus was a blind-alley position derived from perceptions of what it thought would help protect Sri Lanka's sovereignty and interests.

It may only be of academic interest at this point, but it could still be a guide for the future. Sri Lankan policy-makers need to think back and evaluate the value of Indian support at the UNHRC, particularly ahead of the 2012 resolution. If only decision-makers in Colombo had stood by their commitments on the LLRC Report and power-devolution, the latter being promised at times even without being asked through the years of 'Eelam War IV' and afterward, things might not have come to such a pass.

At the time, as Sri Lankan interlocutors often claimed, six or seven voting-members at the UNHRC were playing fence-sitters till the last minute, waiting to take their cue from India, the acknowledged regional power with a full understanding of ground realities in neighbouring Sri Lanka. It may only be speculative, but how could the vote have turned this time, if the Indian abstention had been known to some voting-members in advance is a question that Sri Lanka should muse?

The Tamils in Sri Lanka, their TNA leadership in particular, seemed to have begun playing the international community against India in the past years, and thought that they had succeeded, after all. Egged on by their Diaspora and impressed by the political postures from the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu, they might have concluded that India had been 'fixed' and they would not have much to worry about from now on about the Indian vote at the UNHRC.

The TNA is on record that they were 'disappointed' by the Indian abstention. 'Shocked' might be more like it. The message thus is for them where to draw the line, and decide whom they considered true friends, early on, and act accordingly. It is one thing for India to work with the rest of the State actors on issues and concerns of mutual interest and concern. It is another for the TNA to assume that India was in a fix and could be 'fixed', too.

It is the kind of diplomacy that the LTTE first, and the Diaspora now, thought they had mastered. Maybe, the Indian elections now should give the TNA time to overcome the shock and disappointment, come clean on their recent past viz India, if they still thought India was their umbilical cord parent and that Tamil Nadu was their umbilical cord sibling. The message is clear. You cannot talk one thing, swearing by the umbilical cord parent and do something that hurts her worse. It is not just about the 'intrusive' aspect of the Anglo-American resolution that the TNA overlooked even if it were in the Indian context. The hurt was even more about taking India for granted. A similar approach by the LTTE, some may argue, was possibly the cause for consequences that India did not have to own up, yet ended up owning up. India did not need such political behaviour; India did not need the 'hurt'.

The Congress Party, now heading the ruling UPA coalition in India, decided on the UNHRC abstention, just as it had decided on voting for the US resolutions in the previous two years - based on a principled position. As if to set the record straight, Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh has clarified that it was a 'political decision' taken by the political masters.

Possibly, Secretary Singh was responding to senior Minister P. Chidambaram (from Tamil Nadu) that the abstention was never discussed in the Union Cabinet and that the decision might have been taken by officials in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). Decisions of the kind are not taken that way in India, and as a Minister for decades now, Chidambaram should have known better - or, should have said something better.

Maybe because the TNA had been consumed by the intermediate importance it had assumed after UNHRC 1 & 2 and also visits to Jaffna by the likes of British Prime Minister David Cameron, they did not see the obvious, across the Palk Strait. Maybe, proximity (to people and polity) also clouded their broader vision, as is bound to happen, at times.

Suffice thus is to point out that the much-delayed BJP manifesto for the Indian elections does not even mention the Sri Lankan issue specifically, for the TNA to derive some comfort or disdain otherwise. With the Communists and regional parties (from the North) refusing to budge when the DMK partner in the UPA Government at the time wanted Parliament to pass a 'stronger' resolution than the UNHRC's last year, the TNA needs also to remember Tamil Nadu's AIADMK Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has yet to make the Indian abstention a political or electoral issue, after all.

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

Courtesy : The Sunday Leader, Colombo, April 13, 2014

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