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Why India must vote against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC?

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • March 20, 2013

    Hectic diplomatic parleys are on to decide India’s course of action at the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) meeting scheduled for 21 March, where the issue of human rights violations by Sri Lankan forces during the concluding phase of the Eelam war is likely to be discussed. Two questions have become pertinent for India in this context: Should Tamil Nadu be determining India’s Sri Lanka policy? Whether India should vote against Sri Lanka in the UNHRC?

    While the conduct of foreign policy lies in the exclusive domain of the Central government, in recent years regional political players with ‘narrower’ interests in local politics have tried to exert disproportionate influence on key aspects of India’s foreign policy by taking advantage of the politics of coalition and the number game such politics are indeed based upon. It needs to be reiterated here that the Tamil issue is only one part of India’s policy towards Sri Lanka, and it is important to take into account the entire gamut of political, economic, strategic and socio-cultural ties that together make up India-Sri Lanka relations. Therefore, the national interest should be the prime consideration in formulating India’s Sri Lanka policy.

    Be that as it may, it is important to understand why there has been a resurgence of sympathy for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause in Tamil Nadu? The state’s political parties remained largely quite during the last phase of the war conducted in the jungles of Vanni in April 2009. Other than a token hunger strike by Karunanidhi (who was then in power), there was no protest in Tamil Nadu when the LTTE was eliminated. However, the situation has changed particularly in recent weeks. Both the DMK and AIADMK are today engaged in competitive politics keeping the next general elections in mind, with the DMK’s withdrawal from the central government being the latest move. More importantly, the new round of protests has been inspired by various video clippings that have emerged from the war zone showing how unarmed LTTE cadres were indiscriminately killed in spite of surrendering to the Sri Lankan security forces. The latest video to emerge is the killing of Prabhakaran’s 12 year old son Balachandran. All this has disproved the Sri Lankan government’s assertion of zero casualties and caused outrage in Tamil Nadu. Notwithstanding all this, the decision on which way to vote remains a preserve of the Central government and it needs to take a broader perspective of the issues at stake.

    India needs to take some facts into consideration before deciding its course of action. Though the Sri Lankan government has done commendable work in terms of rehabilitation, resettlement and reconstruction of the war ravaged zone, it has not displayed any seriousness in pursuing a political approach involving meaningful devolution of power to address the Tamil political grievances, which, in fact, were the prime motivators for the internecine conflict that raged for three decades. Rather, in its efforts to deny devolution of powers to the provinces, Colombo has been arguing that such demands are diaspora-inspired and motivated by the separatist idea that continues to be held by LTTE sympathisers. Colombo’s unwillingness to move towards a political solution to the ethnic issue has been the major source of dissatisfaction for the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. In the past India has tried to convince the Sri Lankan government to resolve the long pending issue through devolution but without much success.

    What has worsened the situation even further is that more than three years after the war, the Sri Lankan government continues to exercise vigil over the Tamils and engage in indiscriminate arrest and detention. Further, the security forces which control every aspect of life in the North and East have a preponderant presence and the Sri Lankan government has erected victory statues every few metres. Consequently, there is a great sense of despair among Sri Lanka’s Tamils.

    India had earlier placed a lot of hope on the dialogue process that Colombo initiated with the Tamil National Alliance. However, these talks remain stalled since January 2012 because Colombo wants the TNA to participate in the Parliament Select Committee (PSC) for further discussion on the ethnic issue. But the TNA has refused to participate in the PSC unless a bilateral agreement is first reached between itself and the government since it feels its voice will get subdued in a committee where it does not have a majority. All its participation will do is sanctify the decision by the majority on the crucial issue of devolution of powers.

    Given the political resonance that the unfulfilled Sri Lankan Tamil grievances has generated in Tamil Nadu, it is difficult for India to completely ignore the Tamil Nadu factor while taking a call on how to vote at the UNHRC. At the same time, New Delhi must not also give in to the phobia of the growing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka and the resulting imperative of not antagonising Colombo. Unlike China, India is Sri Lanka’s next door neighbour and has ethno-cultural and religious linkages spanning several centuries. It cannot therefore adopt only a geopolitical approach.

    In fact, much of the international outrage has been provoked by the attitude of the Sri Lankan government and its refusal to take cognizance of war crimes coupled with its unwillingness to seek a political solution to the ethnic issue. In this context, India too must clearly express its views about the imperative of the Sri Lankan government setting up its own enquiry commission to specifically look into the charges of war crimes, implementing the recommendations of the LLRC pertaining to the rights of Tamils, and evolving its own ‘home grown’ solution at the earliest rather than playing around with terminologies like ‘thirteenth amendment plus’ or building ‘domestic consensus’ while acting in a manner that defeats the very meaning of these expressions. If that means India has to vote against Sri Lanka in the forthcoming UNHRC meeting, so be it.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.