Originally Published 2013-12-03 10:32:19 Published on Dec 03, 2013
Post-CHOGM revival of what otherwise are short-term suspended issues may have the potential to unilaterally commit the Union of India to positions on Sri Lanka human rights issues that may be difficult to rescind closer to UNHRC March session.
Sri Lanka: Cameron's presence and Manmohan Singh's absence
"Recent Indian media reports, quoting unnamed sources in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), on British Prime Minister David Cameron's observations on human rights violations in Sri Lanka, when he was on the Sri Lankan soil, should be a strong reflection on the Indian concerns in the matter. Cameron's assertion that he was the first foreign Head of Government to visit Sri Lanka's war-torn Northern Province, after counterpart Manmohan Singh chose to let External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid to lead India's CHOGM delegation should be a greater cause for New Delhi's concerns, considering that these parts of the world have been traditionally acknowledged as "India's sphere of influence".

Cameron's declaration that the UK would insist on 'independent' inquiry into Sri Lanka's human rights (HR) violations at UNHRC's March session in Geneva goes beyond a possible need to please the vocal and vociferous Sri Lankan Tamil constituency back home. It has the potential to embarrass the Indian friend from outside as well as the Diaspora-driven harassment from within the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu.

There may be no links. Yet, the current British efforts come only years after the US signing ACSA with Sri Lanka and Maldives, independent of each other and one with India. The US also tried in vain to graduate the Maldivian ACSA into a SOFA, reportedly behind New Delhi's back while bilateral relations between the two South Asian countries were not particularly at its peak.

Post-Cold War, western academics had rather successfully built a case on China's 'String of Pearls' around India. Today, that shoe may be on more than one feet. Whether the renewed western interest in the larger Indian Ocean neighbourhood abutting South Asia has anything to do with the controversial trans-Atlantic 'Diego Garcia' lease deed ending in 2016 remains to be seen.

The current western efforts on HR issues in Sri Lanka are graded and graduated, so as to expand and include specifics not pertaining to the 'ethnic war'. The question otherwise is if they are pressuring Colombo to give an acceptable political solution to the island-nation's Tamils, or to use it as a tool to extract their pound of flesh from India's neighbourhood nations, on agendas in which India has no part yet India cannot escape one, either.

Uncharacteristic, yet...

As Indian media analyses have since pointed out, it's not India's style or character to be flamboyant on sensitive foreign/neighbourhood policy issues. As stake-holders in Sri Lanka would agree, New Delhi's silence during the run-up to UNHRC-1 Resolution achieved more for them than a vociferous approach could have done. Today, India is still held in respect by all sections in Sri Lanka - not as a suspect.

It is in this context that Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid's early assertion about his intention to participate in CHOGM needs to be understood. It was clear almost from the start that the MEA was taking a policy-decision, based on what was the best for India under prevailing geo-strategic, regional and national interests. The Prime Minister was constrained by political priorities, that too in an election year. This is generally well understood in neighbourhood capitals, where too leaderships face near-similar election-driven political pressures from domestic constituencies.

The policy-prioritisation of the Indian Establishment was felt even more when Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh visiting Sri Lanka for the first time after taking charge and as part of the nation's CHOGM delegation, spelt out the impediments to the early resumption of stake-holders' talks on the vexed fishers' issue involving Sri Lankan Tamil tradesmen and their counterparts from Tamil Nadu. In Colombo, she did not mince words that the State Government in India was the possible cause for the current delays.

Crossing the Lakshman rekha

Clear-cut as the MEA's policy-formulation on India's Sri Lanka approach may be, the CHOGM-related politics emanating from Tamil Nadu may have had a ruinous effect on well-established norms and rules in the conduct of Government business of the Indian Union. The 'CHOGM row' did not stop with political protests. It also saw the Tamil Nadu Assembly pass one resolution after another on issues that were essentially in the Centre's domain under the constitutional scheme.

The 'Lakshman rekha' was crossed for the first time very long ago, when the State Assembly successively and successfully passed such unanimous resolutions on issues and developments in a 'friendly neighbour'. Political parties in the State as also successive Governments in Fort St George have gotten away with telling the Union of India and its sensitive arms like the Indian Army, Navy and the Air Force, as to what they could and should do - not only in protecting the lives of Indian fishers in the troubled waters shared with Sri Lanka. There have also been a series of attempts to interfere with their medium and long-term strategies for protecting Indian territories and interests. Mutual training for the personnel of the tri-Services between nations is only a part.

Within the Government at the Centre, for instance, Union Ministers from Tamil Nadu freely aired their views and ideas in public. Post-CHOGM revival of what otherwise are short-term suspended issues may have the potential to unilaterally commit the Union of India to positions on Sri Lanka HR issues that may be difficult to rescind closer to UNHRC March session. Considering that Indian parliamentary polls are due by May, the Centre would be saddled with difficult political situation on the Tamil/Tamil Nadu front even without such help from inside.

Such behaviour on the part of senior and otherwise responsible Cabinet Ministers may have had the effect of seeking to interfere with the independent functioning of the ministry concerned - in this case, the MEA. It also amounts to influencing discussions and decision-making in the Cabinet, using extra-institutional forums and platforms, particularly the media, with deniability being a favourite past-time of the political class. Inter-ministerial interference of the kind has a reverse-gear, too.

It is one thing for the Cabinet as a whole to consider concepts and concerns on any issue. It is another for an extra-constitutional authority to take the lead and the decision, too. At the height of the CHOGM row, the media repeatedly referred to the 'Core Group' of the Congress leader of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) being seized of the matter.

Going by reports, it was the Core Group's decision that Prime Minister Singh would not go to Colombo. Authenticated by Group members since, they have not been denied. Whether right or wrong, it has become a norm in countries like Sri Lanka. It cannot suit a large and varied country as India. Core values and core interests cannot be allowed to be diluted on the altar of short-term political expediency or electoral possibilities.

Not only the MEA, but the Defence Ministry, for instance, too has begun recalibrating its institutional priorities based on national interests to political realities that cannot be wished away. News reports had indicated that Defence Minister A K Antony, as a member of the Congress Core Group, had favoured Singh not attending CHOGM but India still being represented at Colombo.

Yet, his ministry for some time now has begun putting the nation's geo-strategic interests in and on Sri Lanka in perspective, without yielding to political pressures, either from Tamil Nadu or elsewhere. Navy chief Admiral D K Joshi's participation in the post-war, fourth 'Galle Dialogue' and his reported offer to train Sri Lanka Navy officers in Indian academies fall into a long-standing pattern that has kept bilateral personnel equations too in good stead.

Yet, the Centre cannot afford to shut its eyes to the possibilities and consequences of not taking a principled stand on multi-layered, multi-dimensional issues of the kind. Left unchecked on the track where they should be, when and how, this has the dangerous potential to culminate in an unenviable crisis of confidence between constitutionally-mandated constituents seeking to interfere with the legitimate functions of legally-created institutions, tasked with certain supreme responsibilities, which in turn command 'supreme sacrifice'. Mum cannot be the word anymore!

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