Deep-rooted contradictions are surging to the surface in India’s Sri Lanka policy.
The deep bonds of ethnicity, culture, geography and history make India and Sri Lanka inseparable.
Yet this is also a tragic story of the imperatives of geopolitics and the compulsions of domestic politics crisscrossing plain human dignity and compassion – especially for the land that gave birth to Mahatma Gandhi.
But for contemporary India, politics comes first. And politics is pitiless. Tamil nationalism has been traditionally a pond that the Indian politician occasionally visited for rejuvenation, and its attraction is growing as party politics in India has become highly competitive.
The Indian Parliament went into an uproar on Tuesday as two rival regional parties from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, which have been vocal supporters of Sri Lankan Tamils, demanded to know the central government’s stance on a resolution on Sri Lanka coming up at the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) in Geneva.
The draft resolution is sponsored by the United States, France and Norway and it seeks the UN to assist Colombo to investigate alleged atrocities or “war crimes” committed by the state security forces during the bloody civil war as as well as implement measures of reconciliation.
As a matter of high principle, India should be supportive of the resolution. India is no more defensive about the human-rights situation in Jammu and Kashmir. In pragmatic terms, it even suits the ruling Congress party in the central government in New Delhi to project itself as the protector of Tamil interests. Tamil Nadu sends 39 lawmakers to India’s 540-member parliament.
In terms of realpolitik, too, India increasingly strives to harmonize with the international community; it recently attended the meeting of the “Friends of Syria” in Tunis, and voted in favor of the Arab League resolutions in the UN Security Council and the General Assembly, which sought to condemn Damascus on its appalling human-rights record.
Suffice to say, a good case can be made why New Delhi should support the US-sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka.
But New Delhi is dithering. India pursued a cold-blooded policy of helping the Sri Lankan armed forces decimate the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
It was sweet revenge for the LTTE’s murder of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. To distance itself clinically at this point from the river of blood that flowed in Sri Lanka, therefore, becomes problematic.
Yet to be seen condoning the Sri Lankan army’s war crimes is also antithetical to what India would like to profess as a democratic country.
As if the contradiction were not bad enough, New Delhi had estimated that its decisive role in helping Sri Lanka vanquish the Tamil Tigers would enhance its prestige and influence in Colombo. However, the LTTE’s destruction has only led to triumphalism in Colombo.
Riding a wave of Sinhalese chauvinism, Colombo overnight turned its back on the assurances held out to New Delhi that once the LTTE was done with, a fair, just and equitable solution to the root problem of Tamil alienation could be found. Plainly put, New Delhi’s capacity today to nudge Colombo in that direction is virtually nil.
One way it could resume its historical prescriptive role toward Colombo would be by playing a “creative role” at the UNHRC to negotiate some sort of modus vivendi between Colombo and Washington. But then, Colombo has shut its doors to any intrusive UN role in its internal affairs.
From the Indian viewpoint, Washington is also not helping matters. The assistant secretary of state dealing with South Asia, Robert Blake, continued the tirade against the Sri Lankan political establishment on Tuesday-
“Experience in many civil conflicts around the world has shown that countries that don’t take adequate measures to address reconciliation and accountability frequently experience a regeneration of the insurgency that they faced. We could see very much that similar situation in Sri Lanka”.
He said Washington wouldn’t allow a weakening of its resolution, which is expected to pass in the vote next week. A minister in Colombo promptly called for a boycott of US products.
Evidently, although India and the US are soulmates with regard to the Indian Ocean region – they will stage yet another big naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal in April – and the “containment” of China in the region, New Delhi cannot afford to alienate Colombo.
Sri Lanka is also astutely playing its “China card” – apart from stepping up high-level exchanges with Pakistan. Colombo has lately enthroned China on the same pedestal on which India used to be uniquely perched historically as Sri Lanka’s privileged partner.
On March 1, Sri Lanka’s powerful Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa (brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa), who was a pivotal figure leading the military campaign against the Tamil Tigers, was received in Beijing by Chinese State Councilor and Defense Minister Liang Guanglie.
Liang expressed gratitude for Colombo’s support for Beijing’s “core interests” and affirmed that China would continue to support Sri Lanka’s “efforts in safeguarding state independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity and realizing social and economic development”.
Liang stressed that Beijing hoped to work with Colombo to “consolidate and deepen mutually beneficial cooperation and improve communication and cooperation between the two armies”. Even more interestingly, he observed that China and Sri Lanka had “similar historical situations and wide common interests”.
Upon Rajapaksa’s return from Beijing, the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry issued a statement last Thursday appreciating China’s “firm and consistent support in safeguarding Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
The discourse is manifestly aimed at the policymakers in New Delhi (and Washington). Colombo is telling the Indians to go and tell it on the mountain if they have notions of dictating policies to Sri Lanka.
Quite obviously, Beijing is also quietly but unambiguously warning New Delhi that there is a price to pay for aligning with the US and disregarding China’s “core interests” in the Asia-Pacific region.
But what is brewing ahead could profoundly transform the entire great game. Hopes are rising that the seawaters around Sri Lanka contain significant hydrocarbon reserves – especially the Mannar area straddling the maritime boundary with India (known as Palk Strait).
Now, this could turn out to be the South China Sea in reverse for Sino-Indian ties. New Delhi has rubbished Beijing’s protests and asserted its determination to collaborate with Vietnam to explore oil in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
Beijing warned of consequences if New Delhi persisted. It is payback time when Beijing decides whether or not to accept Colombo’s fervent invitation to come and prospect for oil in the Palk Strait in the waters that have lazily lapped India’s southern coastline from time immemorial.
New Delhi is frantically wooing Colombo not to disregard its sensitivities by allowing the Chinese to come in such close proximity to its coastline.
A team from India’s oil major ONGC Videsh visited Colombo in recent weeks to make a counter-offer, which was followed by an extended four-day visit by External Affairs Minister S M Krishna. But the Sri Lankans are noncommittal. A senior official of the Petroleum Ministry in Colombo told the British Broadcasting Corp on Monday-
“They [Indians] have a lot of experience. Their knowledge is more than ours – they have a lot of seismic knowledge. And they have the funding – if we’re picking partners, they tick the boxes. But we’d like to see a diversity of investors”.
He said Colombo would “write to the whole world”, including China. Indeed, many countries have shown interest, ranging from Russia’s Gazprom to Vietnam’s state-owned PVEP (PetroVietnam Exploration Production Corp) to France’s Total and some Australian, US and European companies.
Put plainly, Sri Lankans insist that the Indian Ocean isn’t India’s ocean, but they are prepared to negotiate over it. They are highly sophisticated practitioners of diplomacy and will see how Indian diplomats behave in Geneva.
Sri Lanka expects India to stand up and be counted as its friendly neighbor when the US-led resolution in the UNHRC comes up for voting. That expectation is going to be the bottom line for future India-Sri Lanka relations.
But on the other hand, the ruckus in the Indian Parliament on Tuesday also rang the warning bell that the tsunami of Tamil nationalism could engulf the Congress-led coalition government in New Delhi, which critically depends on the backing of Tamil MPs.
All this is being played out against a poignant backdrop of infinite tragedy with secret video recordings surfacing on the brutal point-blank execution of an innocent 12-year-old boy at the closing stage of the Sri Lankan war for no fault of his except that God willed him to be born as the son of the late LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
The cup of Tamil anger will overflow after British television released the documentary on Wednesday).
(M K Bhadrakumar is a retired career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service who served in Countries like Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey. In Colombo , Bhadrakumar was the First Secretary (Politics)during the tenures of High Commissioners Thomas Abraham and SJS Chatwal)