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Vote abstention: India’s ties with Sri Lanka

When the savage war became a war against the Tamil civilians, and gross human rights violations took place, New Delhi, by its inaction, became an accomplice.

Published: 04th April 2021 07:07 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th April 2021 07:07 AM   |  A+A-

India-Sri Lanka ties; flag

For representational purposes

India’s abstention from voting on the OHCHR resolution has received a mixed reaction. While the drummer boys of the Tigers have condemned it as a betrayal of the Tamil minority, discerning observers have appreciated the rationale behind the decision. Explaining India’s policy, Ambassador Indra Mani Pandey, India’s Permanent Representative, explained New Delhi’s “consistent position” rested on two pillars: support to Sri Lanka’s unity and territorial integrity and abiding commitment to the aspirations of the Tamils for equality, justice, peace and dignity.

It may be recalled that in 2009, after the end of the war, India took the initiative to get a resolution passed congratulating Sri Lanka for defeating one of the most ruthless terrorist organisations. At that time, New Delhi believed in the repeated assurances given by the Sri Lankan government that it would soon fulfill its commitment to introduce participatory democracy in the Tamil provinces. “13th Amendment plus” was the mantra chanted by Mahinda Rajapaksa to bring about ethnic reconciliation. 

It should be highlighted that in the post-July 1983 period, when New Delhi got actively involved in Sri Lanka, it was determined not to permit a military solution. At the same time, the solution sought by New Delhi was always within a united Sri Lanka. The Tamils had to be assisted in defending themselves against military reprisals. This led to the mutually contradictory “mediatory-militant supportive policy”. In early 1987, when Colombo launched the Operation  Vadamarachchi  and the Tigers were running away from the battle scene, New Delhi responded by “air dropping” food materials. Jayewardene was compelled to come to the negotiating table; the result was the India-Sri Lanka Accord of July 1987, which, for the first time, provided for substance of federalism in a unitary set up.

An analysis of subsequent events testifies that because of the non-cooperation of the Sri Lankan government and the defiance of Prabhakaran, the Accord itself became a source of discord. What is more, TULF leaders did not play ball with New Delhi. India expected them to contest the election and come to power in the merged North-East Provincial Council. But the party did not contest because it did not want to antagonise the Tigers. I need not go into details, events took their own course; the mediator became the villain and the IPKF had to withdraw without accomplishing its objectives.

The tragic assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the suicide squad of the LTTE sent shock waves across India. New Delhi revised its stance, began to extend support to Sri Lanka in getting the Tigers internationally ostracised. What is more, during the 4th Eelam War, New Delhi provided Sri Lanka with crucial intelligence inputs and the Tigers became fish out of water.  When the savage war became a war against the Tamil civilians, and gross human rights violations took place, New Delhi, by its inaction, became an accomplice to the crimes despite feeble protests. 

In retrospect, it could be pointed out that three major obstacles prevented a negotiated settlement — competitive politics among the two major Sinhala parties, conviction that unity and unitary set up go together, and introduce new  Constitution to consolidate and entrench itself in power. 

Let me give an illustration. The Second Republican Constitution of 1978, which is still in operation, was not enacted by a Constituent Assembly. It was drafted by a Select Committee and adopted by a two-thirds majority. Between 1978 and 1988, the Constitution was amended 16 times. The Constitution was not adopted through a consensual process. The major opposition party, the SLFP, boycotted the legislative proceedings. The minority communities also did not participate in the Constitution making process. The 1978 Constitution provided for proportional representation. The overwhelming majority that the UNP had in Parliament was based on first-past-the-post system. President Jayewardene, unsure of two thirds majority under proportional system, adopted a clever device — he extended the life of parliament by five years through a referendum. 

The international community, especially India, became frustrated because the Rajapaksa brothers followed delaying tactics. Then they began to subvert democratic process. The merger of the north and the east, which was an article of faith for Sri Lankan Tamils, was undone by a judicial pronouncement. The main pillars of democracy — judiciary, freedom of the press, trade unions and students unions began to be systematically interfered with. The UN Report has expressed concern over emerging trends —the failure to fulfill past commitments to enquire into human rights violations. The UN report has highlighted “deepening immunity, increasing militarisation of governmental functions, ethno-nationalist rhetoric, and intimidation of civic society”. 

To understand the rationale of India’s decision, one has to keep the international scenario in mind. Any attempt to ostracise Sri Lanka would be counter–productive. It would only increase Sri Lanka’s dependence on China. Second, a solution to the Tamil problem can be found only if it becomes an integral part of the wider struggle for restoration of democracy. The need of the hour is unity among all opposition parties, which subscribe to power sharing and participatory democracy at all levels. There should also be a lively debate as to how the cultural rights of the non-territorial minorities, Moslems and the Indian Tamils, could be promoted. Instead of imposing uniformity, Sri Lanka should find ways and means to accommodate diversity and pluralism.

Paul Sieghart, internationally renowned human rights activist, had quoted one of the most cynical observations in international politics: “You cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs”.  It means that for achieving rapid economic growth, the government has to impose restrictions on democratic freedoms and human rights. Singapore statesman Late Lee Kuan Yew was the greatest champion of this absurd proposition.  As a result, Singapore became a conformist society. The wise conformed, the otherwise landed in Changi prison. 

Manimekhalai is the greatest literary epic of Theravada form of Buddhism. It would be appropriate if Sri Lankan leaders reflect on the wisdom contained in this great epic: “If the King swerved from the rule of law, the planets would step out of line. If the planets stepped out of line, the rains would fail. If the rains failed, life on earth would cease. It would be time to say, ‘One who rules the world as a King should look upon every life as his own’.”    

V Suryanarayan
Founding director and senior professor (retd.), 
Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies 
suryageeth@gmail.com



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