Indian Riddle and the SAARC Ripple
Nothing sums up the Indian context to the UN Report (“Advisory Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka Allegations”) on Sri Lankan war than the two widely-held beliefs that lie at the opposite ends of the spectrum viz., India helped the rise of LTTE and India wanted the LTTE to be destroyed.
Maybe that explains the riddle surrounding the rather tepid reaction to the UN Report on Sri Lanka by India, a nation that has the single-biggest stake in the issue outside Sri Lanka. While the international human rights community and many nations went hammer and tongs at the island nation on its alleged war crimes, the Indian reaction probably marked the acute discomfort that the issue poses to its public diplomacy:
“The issues raised in the report need to be studied carefully. As a first step, we intend to engage with the government of Sri Lanka on the issues contained in the report.”
Really! And engage with the government of Sri Lanka how exactly? In the manner that it did during the last days of the war, by turning a blind eye to the excesses committed by the Sri Lankan army in broad daylight?
Gordon Weiss, former UN Representative to Sri Lanka, may have put the nail on India’s head when he said:
“I believe that [the] Indians were aware of the civilian casualties that were happening [in 2009], because they had pretty good intelligence inside [Sri Lanka’s] siege zone. If foreign governments knew what was going on this latter stage of the war and continued to supply arms, then I think it is a matter worthy of investigations in those countries.”
Further investigations would precisely be what India may not want at the moment. Not because it has any war skeletons in its own cupboard, but simply because it passively allowed too many bodies to turn into skeletons in Sri Lanka.
Almost as an indication of the ‘helpful inaction’ of India during the last days, when Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa was asked about India’s stand on the UN Report, he told a gathering of local heads of media institutions that “India has always acted with co-operation with Sri Lanka. Our relations have been good at all times”.
In India’s defense, though, it can be said that there is only so much that a nation can do in internal matters of another sovereign nation – unless you are the U.S. i.e. So, it had no option to believe Sri Lanka, when during the course of the war, President Rajapaksa assured the Indian government by means of many interactions between the two nations that he was awaiting the recommendation of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) to finalise his course of action. The APRC, it may be remembered, was appointed in 2006 to address the underlying problems that were causing the civil war like situation in the island nation.
As it turned out, quite expectedly, in the triumphant hours of the elimination of the LTTE, the Rajapaksa government unceremoniously dumped the entire APRC process. India hasn’t said anything about that too – maybe in the fear of pushing Sri Lanka further in to the lap of China and Pakistan, who are gradually occupying the Lankan geo-political space that is slipping out from India’s grasp.
And the Indian fear is not totally unfounded, as can be seen in the Wanni, a land between Jaffna and Anuradhapura that is considered to be a historical heartland of Sri Lanka. It was also one of the sites of the most brutal army operations against the retreating LTTE and its supporters. Thousands of people in the Wanni are still in camps or under tents and have already weathered two monsoons in the aftermath of the war horror. But while the Lankan government is putting up quarters for the security forces personnel in the Wanni with building materials imported from China, India’s offer of building 50,000 houses for the displaced people is singularly stuck in the geo-political skirmish.
A big part of the present Lankan attitude towards India stems from the belief in the island nation of India playing a ‘double game’ with it on the issue of the war. Sri Lankans believe that last year, India had not supported the letter of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) that had sought to oppose the decision of the UN Secretary General to appoint a panel of experts to advise him on the Sri Lankan war. The charge is that even today India remains an extremely influential country in the NAM arena and if it had so desired, it could have played a key role in forcing the world community to heed to NAM suggestion of not appointing the panel. But, apparently, it chose to wilt under western pressure.
Even now, after the release of the report, India has said nothing to soothe the Lankan nerves – unlike Russia, which has been unequivocal in its support for Sri Lanka.
Making it worse for India, Sri Lankans generally believe that Hardeep Singh Puri, India’s Permanent Envoy to UN, had met the Secretary General’s Advisory Panel before the finalizing of the report, but inspite of – allegedly – knowing the content of the report, did nothing to help the Lankan cause, in terms of the harsh tone of the Report.
The only possible ‘sympathetic reason’ cited by the locals is the never-ending friction that projects proposed or carried out by the Indian companies or government has been facing since the arrival of the Rajapaksa government.
But that is a minority view. The majority in the island – as probably in most SAARC nations – believe that India has always liked acting the Big Brother of the region and that it is trying to extract its pound of flesh from the Lankan government through its silence. If ever more ammunition was needed by the Lankans, Hardeep Singh Puri was an apprentice to the Indian High Commissioner of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) days, J N Dixit – a man despised in Sri Lanka because of his alleged approach of a ‘British Viceroy’.
And yet, Sri Lanka can barely ignore India’s support in the matter. President Mahinda Rajapaksa had spoken to PM Manmohan Singh soon after the report had arrived. And inspite of the chill in relations, Colombo would be banking on India to bail itself out of the unfavourable spotlight. A fortnight ago, President Rajapaksa had told the Lankan media that India’s support was important in his government’s attempt to tackle the current impasse over the UN Report.
Part of the Lankan confidence stems from the belief that India actually wanted the elimination of the LTTE. Since India is said to have known exactly what was happening inside the so called `no fire zone’ (NFZ) during the gruesome last days of the war, the belief is that India (too) believed that a political solution for the Tamil community was feasible only after the decimation of the LTTE.
Agreeing with the above, Gordon Weiss had told BBC that
“The Indians were aware of the civilian casualties, because I believe they had very good intelligence sources inside the conflict zone”
…before adding that the Indians wanted to see the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam destroyed.
Interestingly, at the peak of the cold war, when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India, India was said to have watered the LTTE plant till its absolute nutrition. Unlike India’s association with the then USSR, Sri Lanka was closer to the U.S. So, when the the Tamil issue raised its head prominently in Sri Lanka, Indira saw it an opportune moment to drive home a point to Sri Lanka.
Narasimha Rao, former Prime Minister of India and the then Foreign Minister of India, organized peace talks in Thimpu ( Bhutan) in July-August 1985 between Sri Lankan all the Tamil groups aimed at bringing an end to the Sri Lankan civil war.
What followed was the so-called ‘Thimpu Declaration’, which broadly stated the following:
(1) It is our considered view that any meaningful solution to the Tamil national question must be based on the following four cardinal principles:
(2) Recognition of the Tamils of Ceylon as a nation
(3) Recognition of the existence of an identified homeland for the Tamils of Ceylon
(4) Recognition of the right of self determination of the Tamil nation
(5) Recognition of the right to citizenship and the fundamental rights of all Tamils of Ceylon
The Tamil side was represented by the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS), Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) and Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF).
Expectedly, the Sri Lankan government rejected all but the last condition, claiming that the rest violated Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.
Around that time, the Indian government is said to have started giving military training to Tamil youth. So, in a manner of speaking, the LTTE and all other Sri Lankan Tamil groups had military bases in Tamil Nadu, the southern-most state of India. The idea was to escalate the LTTE and other groups’ activities and then use the handle on them as the negotiating leverage while settling the Tamil issue in Sri Lanka.
Like most misadventures, that too eventually became just that – a misadventure. And in the process, it cost the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, a former Prime Minister of India himself and, ironically, the son of Indira Gandhi, at the hands of the LTTE.
It is that assassination that ended the romance between India and the LTTE.
Unfortunately, the Tamil issue persisted – with India not knowing which way to go. So, while officially it went ahead with the listing of the LTTE as a global terrorist organisation and did precious little to stop the Sri Lankan army excess on the banned outfit’s cadres and citizen supporters, it played to the gallery in the state of Tamil Nadu by talking of the rights of the Lankan Tamils. Alas, as it often happens in cases of double-speak, the Indian state earned few brownie points from either side.
So, while the Sri Lankan side is gradually moving into the lap of China (alongside Pakistan), India is facing heat from all political parties in Tamil Nadu on the UN Report.
Tamil Nadu’s present Chief Minister, J Jayalalitha, recently asked the Indian government to take a stand “at least now (post the UN Report)”, so that the Sri Lankan President and the army chief etc are made to stand trial before International court of Justice:
“The sweet argument of the Sri Lankan government is involved in humanitarian relief efforts on a policy of “no hurt to innocent civilians” has been done to dust by the 214 page UN report.”
In fact, all the political parties of the state have been seeking Rajapaksa’s trial in the international court of justice for crime against (Tamil) citizens.
DMK, which has an alliance with the ruling regime in New Delhi, too stated the following in one of its resolutions:
“Indian government must take necessary action so that those responsible for war crimes in Sri Lanka are brought to book”.
PMK, a DMK ally, had long gone even step further, by asking the Indian government to support and take steps for formation of Tamil nation in the wake of the report!
At the same time VCK, another DMK ally, had demanded immediate convening of a special (Indian) parliament session to discuss the UN report “in the light of its significance for India as a powerful player in South Asia”.
Amidst the din of Tamil voices, comfort has come for the Indian government from the most unexpected quarters. LTTE leader Shanmugam Kumaran Tharmalingam (alias Selvarasa Pathmanathan, Kumaran Pathmanathan or simply KP), who took over the leadership of LTTE after the death of Prabhakaran and is presently in custody has said that his message for the Tamil diaspora (especially in the UK and Norway) and Tamil Nadu politicians is a simple one:
“The war is over, now help us rebuild and work for peace. 50 years ago, our people (Tamil Lankans) were first educationally and economically. Today, we are 50 years behind. For the purpose, the Indian government should engage with Sri Lanka in a manner that allows for a peaceful settlement, which gives a chance to Tamils in Sri Lanka to forget the past.”
Fortunately or otherwise, that’s the only thing that India can – or should – do at the moment.
The rest of the SAARC region is expected to pose pretty little problem to the Sri Lankan government on the issue. While Pakistan is an ally, with an ever increasing span of cooperation (under the watchful eyes of China and much concern for India), the rest of the member nations are covered well by the island nation.
While in Bangladesh just prior to the public release of the UN Report, President Rajapaksa thanked Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the Government of Bangladesh for their steadfast support in combating separatist terrorism in Sri Lanka, and specifically for extending support to Sri Lanka at international forums, including the UN Human Rights Council.
Nepal, it may be remembered, too was on the same page during that UNHRC voting, and had bailed out Sri Lanka on the issue 2 years ago. With the Himalayan nation grappling with its own constitutional crisis at the moment, it is anyway not in much of a state to changes its stance on the Sri Lankan war at this juncture.
Maldives, apart from Pakistan, has been one of the most vocal defenders of the Rajapaksa government. The Maldivian foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem told journalists in Colombo last month that the UN report is “singularly counterproductive”. “The focus should now be on how the country can move forward”, he further added.
Giving him company, Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed’s Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair emphasised that the Maldives saw the end of both the terrorist attacks and the civil war in Sri Lanka as “a very positive development.” He further added:
“The post-war was fluid. I’m concerned the UN report is a bit belated. Why say it now? Why not when the war was going on? My point is that this report only appeared after the war was over. We support the Sri Lankan government’s desire for peace and harmony, and any government that brought about that peace should be held in high honour.”
At the heart of the vocal support lies the truth of Sri Lanka being one of the Maldives’ key economic partner and the principal transit hub for both trade and tourists of the region visiting the country. Last November, President Rajapaksa extended a USD 200 million credit line to Maldives. Moreover, he even traveled to the Maldives to mediate a dispute between the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party and opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) in July last year! Continuing the bonhomie, Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed subsequently attended Rajapaksa’s swearing in ceremony.
Interestingly, and applying a different yardstick to a non-partner nation, the Maldivian Foreign Ministry only recently declared that it was severing diplomatic ties with the African nation because of “clear evidence that the Gaddafi regime is guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes.”
And then the South Asia nations portray the U.S. as the sole torch-bearer of double standards!
Rwanda is often cited as the UN’s greatest failure. Bosnia can surely be added to the list. Most indicators, unfortunately, suggest that the Sri Lankan war too would find its place in that list. And to think of it, the war belongs to a region where out of 8 nations, one is vying for a UNSC seat, while its fiercest rival – – with due help from a dubious (in the context of the region’s geo politics) player with a UNSC veto power – is burning midnight oil to facilitate the opposite.
// Series Concluded //