India and Sri Lanka: More Constructive Role Needed
Image Credit: Flickr (stephen_parker)

India and Sri Lanka: More Constructive Role Needed


There was no doubt that the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) would pass the U.S.-backed resolution against Sri Lanka for its treatment of the Tamil minority. After keeping many guessing how it would vote, India ended up supporting the motion, alongside 24 other countries. Of the remaining countries, 13 voted against it and eight abstained.

The resolution sent a strong message to Colombo "to conduct an independent and credible investigation" of crimes allegedly committed by government forces against the minority Tamil community at the climax of the 27-year civil war in 2009.

It also urged the Sri Lankan government under President Mahinda Rajapaksa to address "continuing reports of violations of human rights," including threats to judicial independence and media intimidation. A UN panel in 2011 found that 40,000 people, mainly Tamil civilians, died in the final stages of fighting.

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Whether the strong words from Geneva register in Colombo remains to be seen, but the resolution has affected the stability of the government in New Delhi and raises questions about foreign policy for South Asia’s biggest country.

Last week a new drama unfolded in New Delhi when Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) withdrew its support for the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. The DMK is one of the oldest allies of the UPA and a prominent party in the state of Tamil Nadu, so its withdrawal was significant. The Tamil party was demanding unconditional support from India for the U.S.-backed resolution

This begs the question: Why did the DMK’s conscience fail to stir in 2009 when the war was in full swing? Why was no pressure put on the Sri Lankan government when it was well known that India was providing tacit support to Colombo in its operation against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam? DMK chief M Karunanidhi was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu at that time, but remained almost a passive spectator to the violence next door.

Unsure of its prospects at the polls in next year’s general elections, the Tamil party seems to be raising the emotive issue of Tamil suffering in Sri Lanka to arouse voters’ sympathy. It is working to gain political mileage by withdrawing support from the central government. Anti-Sri Lanka protests in Tamil Nadu were spurred by the collective desire for disclosure of videos that show civilians being killed without having a chance to surrender.

With the approach of India’s general elections, political parties do not want to be seen to be on the wrong side of this issue. This political contest is clouding India’s larger foreign policy initiatives towards its immediate neighbor, as an article in the Hindustan Times points out.

Given India’s sway in Sri Lanka, a bilateral effort would likely suffice to nudge Sri Lanka into addressing the grievances left over from the war. By calling in international organizations, India only cedes influence and isolates its strategic neighbor.

Alan Keenan disagrees, however, writing in The Hindu that the limits of India’s bilateral influence have long since been reached. Despite India’s unprecedented financial assistance to Sri Lanka over the past four years, the Rajapaksa government has not made a genuine effort to treat Tamils as equal citizens or to recognize their right to autonomy.

But if devolution of power in Sri Lanka is needed to give a political voice to the 13 percent of its population who are Tamils, it is far more important for the majority Sinhalese and the Tamils to seek reconciliation. Therefore, attempts should be made to promote harmony among communities. The political process will only be meaningful when trust is established among different sectors of society.

Given the strong historical and cultural ties between the nations, India could play a greater role in this effort. Yet political parties in Tamil Nadu are guided by narrow electoral goals, which may help them in their quest for power, but will not advance the larger cause in Sri Lanka.

During a reporting trip to Sri Lanka immediately following the war in 2009, the Tamils I met expressed deep distrust about their kin in Tamil Nadu, whom they viewed as political pawns in an electoral game.

Weighing these factors, it seems that a home-grown solution to this vexing issue would be best. For starters, the Sri Lankan government must let go of its authoritarian streak and show greater openness to its Tamil minority. Even now, reports suggest that Tamils are still subject to indiscriminate arrest.

If Colombo can change its ways, the island nation has a wonderful opportunity to usher in a new era of peace and reconciliation. That outcome would be more likely if India could rise above its own domestic politics and play a constructive role.


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