Originally Published 2012-03-16 00:00:00 Published on Mar 16, 2012
The increasing effort at marginalisation of Sri Lanka in the international arena, with hopes that a vote against the country at UNHRC could well shame the Government into taking pro-active measures at an early political solution are misplaced, at best.
Sri Lanka: Understanding the UNHRC vote
Not since the ’anti-Tamil pogrom’ has Sri Lanka rocked the Indian Parliament as of now on the upcoming UNHRC vote. As irony would have it, the Indian communists are on the side of the US, possibly for the first time ever, that too on affairs of international relations. The Tamil Nadu State Congress leadership has also gone with the prevailing regional political sentiments, publicly urging Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to take a position in favour of the US resolution in the UNHRC. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the other national party, also has taken a similar position.

Yet, the UNHRC vote is not a vote on emotions, but on competitive diplomacy, where last-minute deals are struck and compromises made. To assume that an Indian vote would tilt the resolution one way or the other is borne again by sentiments, which has no place in the UN scheme other than in terms of what is chosen to be debated -- and not on how the debate concludes. That is based on bloc politics, which used to be between the two super-powers during the ’Cold War’ era and is in a way in search of a new modus, since.

Between the commencement of the UNHRC session in late February and mid-March, the US has amended its draft to make it as acceptable as possible to as many member-nations as it can. It is all about number-crunching. As a smaller of the two, Sri Lanka can afford to get out of the resolution’s way even through abstentions, if that would help it. As the sole super-power, the US needs a big vote in its favour. Washington has staked its position as the global leader, and it cannot afford to have weakened.

It is unclear whether the proposers of the resolution would be looking at a compromise in the coming days, or would attempt to have Sri Lankan attestation for the same. Colombo has steadfastly said that it was against all kinds of internationalisation of the ethnic issue, in whatever form. Even the amended US draft, as it stands now, has elements of internationalisation in it. References to ’technical assistance’ from the UN Human Rights Commissioner for Sri Lanka, and the need for the latter to report to the UNHRC in the 22nd session in October 2013 are pointers to an intention. Proposers of the resolution see it as their international duty. Those wanting to vote against the resolution see it as an attitude.

The US has also not indicated the procedural methodology of the UNHRC process that it intends to follow in moving the draft for vote. It could either be a substantive or procedural resolution, or neither, depending on the numbers. In the last scenario, the US would then have to think why and how they lost out even at the ’entry’ stage. The reverse would be that the US cannot afford to lose, and would not want to lose this one, either.

Sri Lanka too has been playing its card close to its chest. As critics of the Indian Government in India has been pointing out, in 2009, New Delhi joined hands with Beijing and Pakistan to propose a pro-Sri Lanka counter-resolution after the European Union resolution fell through (with five of the proposing nations not voting in favour of their resolution). A counter-resolution, with or without India, is still a possibility. Sri Lanka already has with it Russia, China and Pakistan on its side. A counter-resolution (also involving the three) would have more takers if the US draft fails to capture the imagination of voting members. A compromise, resolution or not, too is a possibility -- and India seems to be keeping its options open for and on such a possibility, too.

The initial Government response to protests in Parliament and pronouncements from political leaders in Tamil Nadu needs to be understood in this context. Prime Minister Singh, External Affairs Minister S M Krishna and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, as the Leader of the Lok Sabha, have variously explained the Government’s position more forthright than would have been expected of them. By declaring that no date has as yet been set for the vote at Geneva, New Delhi has indicated its understanding of the criticality of the coming days to the UNHRC process, and for India-Sri Lanka relations, too.

Concern for Tamils, of Tamils

The vote at UNHRC is not about sentiments, or about India’s willingness to be identified even more with the Tamils in Sri Lanka than over the decades. Increasingly, the Indian concerns have to be different for the Tamils of Sri Lanka than of the Tamil Diaspora groups that are working overtime against the Government of India as well as the Government in Colombo. It is not about a particular party or leadership in New Delhi, but about India as a nation, and Indians as a people, going beyond linguistic and ethnic distinctions.

Contemporary India has been witness to varying degrees of ethnicity-based nationalism emerging in different parts of the country. The polity and a section of Tamil Nadu have been arguing the case of their Sri Lankan brethren going beyond their own continuing identification with the Indian State. This applies to a succession of Governments and Chief Ministers in the State. In West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is even more circumspect in not wanting to share the waters of the Teesta, if not the Ganga, with fellow Bengalis on the other side of the international border, in what now constitutes Bangladesh.

This time last year, Tamil Nadu was agitated over Tamil fishermen from Sri Lanka, and not the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) for once, attacking their fishers in mid-sea. The political class in India has to understand and acknowledge the trickle-down effects involved. These are complex issues that give in as much to sentiments as to relatively larger issues, where the ’ethnic issue’ in Sri Lanka dominates the regional and national discourses in the country. As politicians and political parties, they can take focussed positions on issues and concerns, but as Government they cannot but take a composite view of things. This is what has been happening over the current issue, as well.

What it means for India, Tamils

The complexity of the current situation at Geneva, if not handled with care and sensitivity in and by India, could lead to a situation where New Delhi would have lost Colombo for good. On a parliamentary discourse on neighbourhood diplomacy or strategic security, the very same political parties, particularly of the national and nationalistic varieties, could then blame the Government of the day at the Centre for goofing up bilateral ties with an important and friendly nation like Sri Lanka. This could happen in any of the upcoming sessions of Parliament, if not in this very Budget session.

It is anybody’s guess why the US, despite being an acknowledged strategic ally and defence partner of India in the post-Cold War era, as designated by the Manmohan Singh Government, should be taking independent positions on sub-continental issues whose end-results are to embarrass New Delhi, no end -- both inside and outside the country. Any forced exit of India from Sri Lankan strategic and political calculations would mean that US would be in direct charge of the non-Chinese, non-Russian engagement in that part of the Indian neighbourhood, too. By going along with the US, purportedly behind the back of Moscow, on these alliance relationships and on the civilian nuclear deal, India may have already lost a trusted and trust-worthy ally.

As is becoming increasingly evident in recent years, existing and emerging global players have been following individual/individualistic strategies in and for South Asia, independent of their equations with India. In the context of the UNHRC vote, any exit of India from the favoured relationship with Sri Lanka would mean that the neo-Cold War between the US and China, as has been predicted for some time now, could be played out in and on Sri Lanka, and without involving India. In time, India cannot escape the consequences of the same, including the possibility of providing an extended corridor for the existing and aspiring super-power, with a forgotten super-power, too, to play out their global games. India’s aspirations to become a global player itself could be gone with it, and the seeds for the same might have already been sown. Sri Lanka seems to be alive to the possibilities, and cautious about the consequences.

Helping Tamils to help themselves

The solution to the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka is about helping the Tamils to help themselves. Or, at least that is what they want. Post-war, the Sri Lankan State is as yet unwilling to trust the Tamil community with Police powers. It is like the situation that prevailed in India, with regard to Jammu and Kashmir, post-Independence, despite the State having a separate Constitution, authenticated by the larger national Constitution. Without having asked for it, Colombo would require guarantees for good behaviour from the Tamils until the ghost of the LTTE is exorcised from their collective mind-set. Internal guarantees are just not there, and external guarantors have to be seen as being sincere and neutral. Despite carrying a baggage from the past, India could still be a candidate for the same, if and when the domestic processes in Sri Lanka concede the possibility of Police powers as sought for the Provinces by all sections of the Tamil polity in that country -- and contained already in the Thirteenth Amendment.

Despite lingering suspicions about India’s future intent in a section of Sri Lanka’s strategic community, with their past linked to the IPKF era, there is greater acceptance for India in the island-nation now than any time in recent decades. This confidence cannot be frittered away, if India has to help the Tamils in Sri Lanka to help themselves, in this way or other ways. The Indian commitment to a united Sri Lanka, made by successive Governments of varying political hues in New Delhi, has remained the guiding-principle over the past decade and more. The Government’s current position on the Geneva vote is also based on that guiding principle, and cannot be outside of it. For, any vote against Sri Lanka, by India on the one hand and by the UNHRC on the other, would only strengthen the hands of separatist sections of the Tamil Diaspora, whose militant past would revive their unforgettable habit of dictating and directing the moderate Tamil leadership on the ground. The ghost of LTTE could be revived, after all. It is not in line with the stated Indian position for a united Sri Lanka.

It is a reality of the times that any nation wanting to help the Sri Lankan Tamils in any meaningful and practical way will have to work with and through the Government in Colombo, whoever its leader, whatever its political hue. To expect India to vote against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC and still want Colombo to heed Indian requests and offers of assistance to the Tamil war victims would be incongruous and impractical, to say the least. Nor is India into games of ’regime-change’ that was openly advocated and attempted democratically in post-war Sri Lanka through the presidential polls of 2010, but did not produce the results desired by propagators, nearer home and elsewhere.

Such efforts, now or later, could only produce political instability in that country, which is in turn is not in the interest of the residual Tamils who have either been chosen or condemned to stay back in that country, as whoever may want to interpret their current position. The alternative would be for those staying back in the country, post-war, to migrate elsewhere, as their kin had done through the war years. As growing evidence would show, Western nations would rather want the Tamils of Sri Lanka to feel secure in their original surroundings, rather than encouraging them to transplant in newer pastures, through the instrument of ’political asylum’, which is increasingly becoming a bad word for them all.

Keeping the talks on the track

Yet, keeping the Sri Lankan political negotiations on the track has proved to be a tougher task for India than it might have bargained for at the conclusion of ’Eelam War IV’. Going beyond the realities of the ground situation that makes a compromised power-devolution package difficult, the Sri Lankan Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is seen as taking a vicarious pleasure in distracting from the issues on hand, diverting promised procedures and delaying decisions. Critics nearer home see it as a continuing effort to promote one-time ’competitive Sinhala nationalism’ to the status of ’composite Sri Lankan nationalism’, where the Government seems to have the support of all sections and ethnicities other than the multi-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) on the side.

In turn, the TNA, while acknowledging the impossibility of a political solution without concurrent concurrence from the Tamil-speaking Muslims and the Upcountry Indian Tamils, not to leave out the majority Sinhala polity and community going beyond the embedded majoritarian sections, has problems being a part of a Parliament Select Committee (PSC), as proposed by Government without initial commitments. The Rajapaksa leadership can be charged with going back on the all-inclusive recommendations of the APRC that it had set up, but the fact remains that the TNA, by exclusion, and the Opposition UNP and the JVP, otherwise, were out of it. The Government camp, despite the visible two-thirds majority in Parliament for effecting necessary constitutional changes, does not feel confident about pushing any reforms through.

The increasing effort at marginalisation of Sri Lanka in the international arena, with hopes that a vote against the country at UNHRC could well shame the Government into taking pro-active measures at an early political solution are misplaced, at best. The draft focusses more on ’accountability issues’ still, and references to a ’political solution’ look as if they could, at best, have a mitigating effect, that too not on the policy and prosecution of the promises made by the proposers at UNHRC, but only on the procedure and possible penalties at the end. It is not the kind of draft that the Sri Lankan State would want to accept, now or ever.

Either at the instance of the Government or on its own initiative, the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) has dubbed the latest Channel-IV footage ’interventionism’ using the media, and said that the video "clearly endangers peace and reconciliation within post-war Sri Lanka". It is saying a lot about the prevailing mood within the armed forces on ’accountability issues’, as much in terms of individuals as in relation to institutions. The question thus needs to be asked if penalising the Sri Lankan State, institutions or individuals for perceived actions in the past would be in the interest of the residual Tamils who have chosen to stay back in the country, either out of circumstances or out of free will -- or, not.

Likewise, the question needs to be addressed if situations such as this have the inherent characteristic of re-escalating ethnic tensions in the island-nation in ways that the pro-LTTE elements in the Diaspora would still want. If the answer is in the affirmative, India could well be pushed into a situation not of its asking. The West likewise too will have more questions than answers flowing from their current initiative, despite their exceptional desire to create conditions for the Sri Lankan Tamil population to live in peace and relative prosperity in the post-war era, without they being forced by circumstances to seek secure, though not greener pastures, elsewhere -- all over again.

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

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