Originally Published 2013-02-28 00:00:00 Published on Feb 28, 2013
After the coming UNHRC session, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group is set to meet in London in April, when they are bound to flag the issue. The Indian position at London would have to be reflective of the position that it might have to take at Geneva only weeks earlier.
Sri Lanka at UNHRC: It's not a one-off affair for India
Not giving into sentiments from across the country entirely, the Centre has done the right thing by treading cautiously on the Sri Lankan issue. The US sponsor of last year's UNHRC resolution has once again expressed its intention to come up with another one at the on-going session in Geneva. And, significantly, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid broadly hinted at the possibilities and the probability that New Delhi may have to vote for the resolution as it had done last year.

The last time the Manmohan Singh Government had cited the 'sense of the House' phraseology in Parliament to defend the decision. The Prime Minister was responding to the public outcry, reflected in both the Houses in more than good measure, on the Lokpal Bill and Anna Hazare's indefinite fast on that count. Now, responding to a call-attention motion on the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka, Khurshid used the same phraseology in the Rajya Sabha, to indicate the direction in which India may be travelling in Geneva, if required.

Khurshid clearly indicated the Indian preference for the US and Sri Lanka as the immediate stake-holders to the proposed resolution to sort it out between them. It is unlikely that the US may not move the motion, but it is still likely that Sri Lanka, which is not a voting member, may not contest it this time, as it did in March last. It does not have committed votes like those of China and Russia, which are not voting members this time. New Delhi's closed-fist approach, mattered last time too, as fence-sitters were expected to take their cue from India, Sri Lanka's closest neighbour and South Asia's dominant player.

In effect, this time round, India's vote would not matter to the results, if there is voting. A back-of-the envelope count would give substantial numbers to the resolution, reducing Sri Lanka's support as much, compared to the last time. At the first-time vote last time, Colombo had gone all out to try and ratchet up support for its cause among the voting-members at the UNHRC as if the nation's very existence depended on it. That is not the case today. Sri Lanka has already announced the scaling down of its delegation to Geneva this time, consequently indicating a low-profile campaign, whose contours and focus are yet to be known.

Going by the public statements made by the US thus far, the proposed resolution is 'procedural' -- and not 'substantive' - in nature. It means that the resolution this time would draw from the one passed unilaterally at the UNHRC, against Sri Lanka's opposition, yet based on Colombo's public commitments, both inside the Council and otherwise, on issues that the resolution had flagged. At the centre of the global concern at the time still related to the implementation of the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), a Sri Lankan creation in the first place.

Shorn of frills, the proposed resolution that way may amount to stock-taking, checking Sri Lanka's achievements against commitments - in the LLRC and as contained in last year's resolution. Colombo has already said that it would seek to convince the global community about the achievements since a Presidential Task Force was put together for drawing up an Action Plan based on the LLRC Report, and the follow-up, implemented and intended for the future. If Sri Lanka thought it fit to sit across the table and sort out mutual misgivings with the proposer(s) of the resolution, India cannot complain.

India does not have a role either. That role will come - however limited the impact be - only if Sri Lanka protests, and there has to be a vote on the US resolution. There is possibly no meaning thus in India playing its hand before those that are involved in the procedure had played out. Clearly, India would stand exposed, one way or the other, if it does so. However, much political parties in the country, particularly those from southern Tamil Nadu, would argue that is not good diplomacy. Good diplomacy as much as good policy is what international relations are all about - at least after a point.

Accountability from within

On the specific issue of 'war crimes' and 'accountability issues', over which the rest of the world is enraged - so are the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora and the Tamil Nadu polity nearer home - Salman Khurshid clarified that all such measures would have to come from within that country. It is a sound proposition, considering a variety of factors, of which India's own position on similar demands on Jammu and Kashmir and a host of other fronts from time to time is only one.

More importantly, the Indian position would also have to do with the 'altruist' nature of American and European intervention on this count in Sri Lanka. As some members pointed out in the Rajya Sabha, New Delhi, independent of whichever party or coalition is in power at the Centre, cannot be party to the possibilities of a trade-off on 'accountability issues' or any other, leaving the residual Sri Lankan Tamils left behind in the island-nation in the lurch - and still in search of political reconciliation of the kind that would ensure that they lived with dignity and as Sri Lankans.

Should the current global discourse lead to such a situation, the ball would once again be back in the Indian court, and the very same parties and leaders in India who are espousing the Sri Lankan Tamil cause as their own, too would be back to square one. New Delhi cannot afford a vacuum on this count, especially on the ground, which, however, is becoming increasingly visible. This has consequences for the Sri Lankan Tamil community in that country, and also for India as a neighbour, whose width and depth could not be pre-judged at any stage.

Ever since the international community began taking an extraordinary interest in accountability issues in Sri Lanka, the political discourse, leading possibly to a negotiated settlement, have all stopped. Even the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the vanguard socio-political outfit of the majority Sri Lankan Tamils living in the island, has stopped talking on reconciliation. No one is willing to hear them on 'accountability issues', where the pro-LTTE sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora, still holds the sway - and has the kind of linkages in the West, as also in Tamil Nadu.

It is in this context that the Indian position on the controversial Channel IV 'expose' and the incessant campaigns by international NGOs, both naming Sri Lanka as the 'sinner' and India as the target-nation which needs be brought around, need to be understood. Without giving in to pressure, both within and outside Parliament, Khurshid, while sharing the sentiments on the bloody killing of Balachandran, the innocent-looking, 12-year-old son of LTTE supremo Prabhakaran, reiterated the Indian position that the authenticity of the published photographs could not be independently established.

Needless to point out, none of the nations sponsoring the UNHRC resolution, with possibilities of greater access to the originals, seems to have an opinion on the photographs. Independent of the campaign-points by INGOs and the Diaspora, there are a host of unanswered questions on these pictures, which Governments across the world would have to consider before arriving at a value judgment.

Dragged -- in and out?

Independent of individual positions that political parties in the country may adopt on episodes and issues, the Government of India's Sri Lanka policy has remained more or less on the track all through. With the 'IPKF era' (1987-89) as the reference-point, every political party in the country - and more so all parties with a substantial popularity in Tamil Nadu -- has been a part of the ruling coalition at the Centre, one time or the other.

The list, apart from the BJP, includes other national parties like the CPI and CPI-M. Tamil Nadu and its leaders are vociferous against the Sri Lankan Government, and India's purported sympathy and support for the same. It had Ministers in two short-lived Governments at the Centre, under Prime Ministers H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral. Both the CPI and the CPI-M were also 'outside under-writers' for the V P Singh Government (1989-90), Deve Gowda and Gujral-led United Front (UF) dispensations (1996-98) and the UPA-I rule of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Throughout this period, successive Governments at the Centre - and by extension the parties supporting them from inside or outside - have also not contested the 'Gujral Doctrine', which laid stress on India giving in more to its neighbours in physical, political and psychological terms, in return for less. In a way, it is a continuing policy that the Government is now following in relation to not only Sri Lanka but also other neighbours as well. For instance, it was the BJP-NDA Government of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajapayee that had initiated the 'Lahore Process' even in relation to Pakistan, otherwise a suspect-neighbour.

It is one thing for India to vote for or against Sri Lanka, or any other neighbour, on a particular issue at a particular point in time. It is another thing for New Delhi to allow itself to be dragged into situation, where India could end up losing on all fronts - including the continued hopes of a political solution to the ethnic issue, based on 'power-devolution', with or without the Thirteenth Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, based on the Rajiv Gandhi-Jayewardene Accord (1987).

At the UNHRC last year around this time, India voted against Sri Lanka. This time round, New Delhi seems to feel that a stage may not have been reached for it to take a call. The reality in Geneva may be that India's vote would be a political statement, in bilateral relations with Sri Lanka and domestic politics nearer home. It will not be a game-changer, as it is being thought to be in last year's UNHRC vote. Yet, India cannot stay away - and vote against - a motion that in substance is a reiteration of what it had supported last time unless there are substantive reasons for New Delhi to believe otherwise.

It is here that the emerging demands - or reiteration of existing ones - by peripheral groups in the Tamil Nadu polity assumes greater significance. Taking the cue from sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora, they have begun charging India with playing a part in the 'war crimes'. It is unclear if both these sections would be some day move on to an upper rung to demand action against India, too. Major political parties in Tamil Nadu, however, seem inclined to stop with India initiating the process of 'war crimes' probe against Sri Lanka, implying possibly that someday the present set of proposers may have their own reasons to move away.

Where does it all lead to? Where could any contemporary proceedings on 'war crimes issue' in Sri Lanka, by external actors, lead to? Any action of the kind, subtle or strong, could further alienate the Sri Lankan State, the Sinhala polity and society, and sections of the security forces in the court, away from the Tamil-speaking people, more than what the external perception is at present. It could have consequences for the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, yes. Even more, it could led to a situation, when the currently faceless sections of the Sri Lankan Diaspora could well start reviving the 'separate State' demand all over again - and demanding referendum of the kind, which they would want India to support, if not initiate.

In the immediate context, India would now be called upon to take a position on the Commonwealth Summit, which Sri Lanka is set to host in southern port-town of Hambantota in November this year. The US is not a part of the Commonwealth, yes, but many, if not most western nations that are members, are already talking about boycotting the Summit or down-grading their representation - if not seeking to shift the venue to outside Sri Lanka. After the March session of the UNHRC, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) is set to meet in London in April, when they are bound to flag the issue. The Indian position at London would have to be reflective of the position that it might have to take at Geneva only weeks earlier - to a greater or lesser extent. That would be saying a lot - and, not saying anything at all, too.

(The writer is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

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