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IF the Government of India finds itself in an unenviable position, unable to craft an effective position on the plight of Sri Lanka’s Tamils, it has only itself to blame. There is little that it can do to ensure a stronger stricture against the ‘less than satisfactory’ record of the Rajapakse regime regarding the relief and rehabilitation of the Tamil community. Forget the insertion of the word ‘genocide’ when describing the end phase of the civil war by the Lankan forces against the LTTE, even the likelihood of a UNHRC resolution calling for an ‘impartial and credible international enquiry’ into the conduct of the Sri Lankan forces, the allegation of human rights violations and failure to adhere to ‘international laws of conduct by solders in combat’, is bleak.

In part this is to do with geopolitics, with major countries like the US, Russia and China opposed to what might be seen as ‘interference in the sovereignty of’ Sri Lanka. Each of them, and others, have after all steadfastly resisted any attempt by the international community to scrutinize their conduct in conflict situations, both internal and external. But equally, everyone also remembers that a far more strongly worded resolution by the UNHRC in 2012 failed to pressure the Sri Lankan government to be less intransigent.

Even more awkward, and contentious, is the demand for passing a resolution against Sri Lanka in the Indian Parliament, the condition set by the DMK for reconsidering its decision to withdraw from the UPA. While many fear, and rightly, that any ‘interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation’ would make India open to similar actions by other countries, as for instance the resolution by the National Assembly of Pakistan regarding the hanging of Afzal Guru, an equally and more important concern is about how such an act will be read in Sri Lanka. It may well be that instead of pressuring the Sri Lankan government to do more for the effective rehabilitation of its Tamil community, including reaching a political settlement, it will only strengthen majoritarian sentiments in the country which view Indian interventionism with suspicion. In the worst case scenario it may even derail the faint voices for a more humanitarian and inclusive politics.

If the Indian political establishment, including the Dravidian parties, were unable (or unwilling) to take a stronger position against the Sri Lankan conduct of the final war against the LTTE in 2009, the current posturing, four year later, is unlikely to be credited with greater authenticity. At the time the DMK was not only part of the Union government but also ruling Tamil Nadu. It clearly enjoyed greater leverage then, and may have been able to push the Government of India into exploring a more pro-active policy vis-a-vis Sri Lanka. To up the ante now when it is far weaker and discredited, and worse, stoke anti-Sri Lankan feelings within Tamil Nadu, smacks not only of opportunism but is dangerous. Attacking Lankan visitors, including Buddhist monks, and threatening to disrupt cultural and sporting engagements with Sri Lanka, will only strengthen anti-Tamil and anti-Indian sentiments in the island nation.

It is worth remembering the Indian record of interventionism in Sri Lanka. From actively aiding various Sri Lankan Tamil militant groups in the 1980s, to the Thimpu peace talks, the India-Lanka Accord and finally, the sending in of the IPKF – each of these efforts failed to ensure a more conducive environment for a more equitable compact between the Sinhala and Tamils in Sri Lanka. Particularly disastrous for Sri Lanka was the Indian inability to rein in the militants, leading to the decimation of liberal, constitutional and moderate Tamil leadership, all of which contributed to the eventual breakdown of inter-communal accord and civil war. All this also showed up the limits of India’s soft and hard power.

None of the above is to minimize the role and actions of various Sri Lankan regimes, which from 1956 onward have steadily worked to marginalize the Tamil community and help usher in a majoritarian Sinhala-Buddhist state. Over a quarter century of civil strife and war have today left the Sri Lankan Tamils weak and battered, without effective political leadership.

The challenge for India is to recognize the ground reality – both the situation in Sri Lanka and the limits of its own power in crafting a response. Falling prey to extremist posturing from Tamil parties and engaging in symbolic politics is only likely to worsen matters. Much as this might sound distressing, more than focus on the ‘abominable’ war record of the Sri Lankan state, or rely on external pressure, the present need is to creatively engage with efforts at relief and rehabilitation such that the Tamil community can recover its own agency.

Harsh Sethi

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