History will remember two dates this week as the defining moment in the India-Sri Lanka relationship. Rather, by extension, they were landmarks in re-defining India’s evolving the 21st century equations in the South Asian neighbourhood — and by extension, in the larger geo-strategic milieu.
On March 19, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told Parliament that New Delhi was “inclined” to vote for the US-sponsored resolution on “accountability issues” relating to alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, at the bi-annual meeting of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva. Singh said India was waiting for the final draft of the resolution, indicating that New Delhi expected certain amendments to be included in it.
Colombo, which had counted India’s as a sure-fire vote against the resolution, and in favour of the Government and people of Sri Lanka, as it perceived, had not lost hope. Three days later, on March 22, a third draft of the resolution became the final American version, and was voted upon. Colombo had nothing to cheer about it even though the final draft said that “technical assistance” from the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s office can be only “in consultation with and with the concurrence of the Government of Sri Lanka”.
A section of the Sri Lankan media said that the crucial amendment, which per se seems to flow from the traditional Indian position against “country-specific resolutions” at international bodies, was influenced by India. Flowing from that was also the conclusion that the veiled Indian condition indicated by Prime Minister Singh may have been met. India voted for the resolution. Sri Lanka lost the vote 24-15, with eight abstentions.
History will thus argue for a long time if the Indian vote did make any difference, going by the final figures — or, if an Indian vote against the US-sponsored resolution would have encouraged at least some of the fence-sitters, as the abstaining-members would be known, to vote in Sri Lanka’s favour.
One will also argue if the UPA’s decision to vote in favour of the anti-Sri Lanka resolution — ignoring the fact that this may not only sour bilateral relations but also push Colombo closer towards Beijing — was aimed at improving the lot of Lankan Tamils. Or, was it just a political decision meant to appease the DMK?
At UNHRC, like in most UN bodies, voting-members are elected for a fixed term, region-wise. From the South Asian neighbourhood, Bangladesh, India, the Maldives and Pakistan were voting-members this time. Ironically, Sri Lanka was not. All three South Asian nations, barring India, voted in Sri Lanka’s favour.
Among them, the Maldives has taken a consistent position that on human rights issues in the international context, the country was with the West, be it in Egypt or Oman, Syria or Iran. In fact, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran is a former Maldivian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Shaeed.
Yet, on Sri Lanka, the closest of neighbours in the shared Indian Ocean neighbourhood, the Maldives spoke in Colombo’s favour at the 18th UNHRC meeting in September 2011, and now voted in its favour six months later.
Interestingly or ironically, among those voted against the UN resolution was Kuwait, in whose cause the US had led a war on Iraq two decades ago and the scars of which continue to haunt the West Asian neighbourhood as the ‘Palestine issue’ has been doing for thrice as much time in the decades after World War II.
The Indian vote in favour of the US has come at a time when there was a perceptible shift in official India’s interest in — and engagement with — the South Asian neighbourhood. It was a new and emerging phenomenon, as New Delhi seemed to have belatedly begun re-working its post-Cold War geo-strategic perspective.
The latter was an ‘arrival statement’ of sorts that accompanied the advent of economic reforms, and implied that New Delhi’s aspirations in the new millennium could not be confined either to its territorial borders, or could India be labelled as ‘the regional power’ in South Asia.
Flowing from this concept was the promotion of the self-alluding perception that India might have already become an emerging global power of sorts, overshooting the South Asian neighbourhood to be an ally of the US, the world’s sole superpower.
The global packaging of China, India’s immediate neighbour and a threat from the 1960s at the very least, as ringing and rigging India’s immediate neighbourhood with a ‘String of Pearls’ aimed at strangulating India at a time of its choosing only provided the equally self-satisfying justification for New Delhi’s policy-makers at the time.
All that changed in recent years, as New Delhi seemed to sit down and revisit its ‘reforms era’ position, possibly to conclude that there could not be a global India, particularly in geo-strategic terms but even in political and economic terms, without a strong grip on the neighbourhood nations.
History, here and elsewhere involving self and other powers, had already taught New Delhi that ‘strong-arms’ methods would not help in ‘winning over’ neighbours, which was the only way to do it, and that ‘winning over the neighbours’ was not possible without India having the kind of economic clout and political openness to make South Asia one large border-less continent.
India had two models before it. One was the ‘Soviet model’, which meant that the jack-booting superpower lost out the neighbours and even some of the constituent members of the Union when communism collapsed.
The other was the US model, which involved guaranteed economic integration of the neighbourhood economy with the American economy, and politically too, Washington spoke for them, stood with them.
So much so, Canada, which is otherwise acknowledged as an industrialised nation in its own right, has willy-nilly come to be seen as yet another satellite, and a powerful satellite of the US — and, does not seem to have regretted the label, either.
So have nations such as Australia and Japan, which for contemporary reasons have strengthened their historic ties with the US in a continuing fashion.
India may have lost out on the analogy, having identified itself with the US and the rest of the West, to put a global political perspective to the Sri Lanka vote at Geneva. Minus the Geneva vote, New Delhi had learnt to manage South Asian equations through strengthened ties at the bilateral level with every nation in the region.
Today, as in the Cold War era, smaller nations, still feeling suffocated by their self-serving perceptions of Indian hegemony with their causes and justification rooted in domestic politics, could find that their forgotten alliance might not have broken in the intervening years — as each one of them, particularly starting with the nations that had voted with Sri Lanka at Geneva, had a willing listener in Colombo.
Translated, this could mean that the fears of the Indian strategic community, founded not necessarily on facts but only on perceptions flowing from their accompanying baggage from the Chinese aggression of 1962, would have more takers now than at the time of ‘Eelam War-IV’ in Sri Lanka (2006-09).
The truth may be that India had started reworking its relations with Sri Lanka even before the revival of ethnic war in the country after the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire agreement with the realisation that in the decades after the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, bilateral ties with a close neighbour could not be held hostage to the mortality of a single individual, named Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE supremo.
The war years may have fast-tracked the strengthening of bilateral relations in ways that could not have been thought of after the disastrous and self-defeating era of ‘India-Sri Lanka Accord’ and the ‘IPKF episode’, not long ago (1987-89).
The revisiting of India-Sri Lanka relations in New Delhi, coupled with a favourable conspiracy of circumstances, meant that India’s lingering fears about an emerging Chinese influence in the island-nation was at best in the passé. The Hambantota port, the Matara international airport and other Chinese fiscal and economic engagement were assessed for what they were worth in economic and political terms, and not necessarily in geo-strategic terms.
That emerging comfort zone, cultivated assiduously, just over a short period, may have been lost to India with the Geneva vote, though it may not automatically mean that Sri Lanka, the first-line of defence for India, could become the launching-pad for any military misadventure targeting the peninsula in particular
New Delhi would now have to be more conscious than ever that it would be fighting its war(s), wherever and whatever, if it came to that, and the American strategic partner may not be ready to put a first foot forward in any meaningful way.
The alternative, worst-case scenario would be that India could be fighting an American war on Indian soil — like many others have done in the recent past, and paid for it with their lost peace and destroyed prosperity.
If the reverse is true and the US, as in some other cases in the past, ultimately befriends Sri Lanka, again, the loss would have been India’s. Colombo would have sent out a clear message that for ‘brokering’ with the West, even if it meant letting down China, whose vote anyway had not done the magic at the UNHRC, it did not require India any more.
What more, if Sri Lanka were at any time to choose China, if not Russia, over India, it would have been for the ‘veto vote’ in the UN Security Council. Patching-up differences with the West, whose perceptions about Sino-Sri Lankan relations was possibly a hidden reason behind the Geneva resolution, would have made Chinese help redundant for Sri Lanka, though the argument would not extend to economic ties, where alternatives are just not in sight!
For India, it is not just internal diplomacy and geo-strategic concerns alone that the Geneva vote has now revived. Post-Geneva, the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora would have developed new teeth, with which they would now gnarl at Sri Lanka and make sure that they are seen gnarling at Colombo.
By hijacking and co-opting the agenda of such unlawful associations as the ‘Trans-national Government of Tamil Eelam’, which incidentally was founded with self-appointed ‘Prime Minister’ V Rudrakumaran, an American national based in the US, Washington may have sent out encouraging signals to the pro-LTTE elements that have been lying low across the world, particularly in Europe and Canada, where their votes could make or mar the parliamentary career of many a local politician.
The situation would have been much different if the US had lost the vote in Geneva, or withdrawn the same at the last-minute through a compromise formula. Then, the diaspora Tamils would have cried foul, saying that the US, like India and Norway, had cheated not just the Tamils in Sri Lanka but the larger Tamil community in India and elsewhere, and would have made it their ‘war cry’ of the future.
With Sri Lankan military might and alert being what it is, and the general sentiments in southern Tamil Nadu too being what it is, whether India likes it or not, whether India is with it or not, the internal security situation in both nations will not be what it used to be over the past three years in particular
While the average Tamil in Sri Lanka would have lost his sleep, peace and hopes of leading a normal life, the day the Geneva vote was called, fearing and anticipating a ‘Sinhala nationalist backlash’ of the earlier kinds, whether or not it comes, India in general and Tamil Nadu in particular cannot think that the worst on the home front was over with a firm decision in favour of the ‘Tamil cause’ at Geneva. It is only the beginning of a new course, a new era.
(The writer, director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, is an expert on Sri Lanka.This article appeared in “The Pioneer”of March 24th 2012)