Sri Lanka: Disturbing Questions
Some years ago, I was in Sri Lankan capital Colombo. On learning that my home state happens to be Odisha despite my Delhi-upbringing, all of a sudden, the general manager of the hotel where I was staying at upgraded my booking to an executive-suite and extended me further facilities. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that many Sri Lankans consider themselves to be the descendants of King Vijay, who had gone from Odisha to found the kingdom of modern Sri Lanka. In fact, most of the Buddhists in Sri Lanka (and the Sinhalese), who constitute the country’s majority, have their origins in Odisha, Bihar and Bengal.
I underscore my experience in Colombo to make the point that majority Sinhalese are as proud of their Indian ancestry as the Sri Lankan Tamils are. What they resent is that when the question of Sri Lanka is discussed in India, only the Tamil –factor is taken into account. It is a fact that India’s policy towards Sri Lanka has been disproportionately influenced by the Tamil Nadu factor. Both the DMK and AIADMK often compete with each other in pressuring the central government in Delhi to take a policy that promotes the interests of the Sri Lankan Tamils but often resented by the Sinhalese as biased and “interference” in their internal affairs.
Does the pressure from Tamil Nadu really help in the resolution of the knotty ethnic issue in Sri Lanka? Does it help the Sri Lankan Tamils and redress their legitimate grievances? I would love to be recommended to read a comprehensive and dispassionate study that deals with these two questions. But I have another question. Are the parties in Tamil Nadu genuinely concerned about the plights of the Sri Lankan Tamils? I hope they do not shed crocodile tears, the same way our “secularists” bit their chests over “the poverty of and injustice to” Indian Muslims. The Hindu, Tamil Nadu’s greatest national daily, commented editorially the other day, “As for the ‘feelings’ of the political parties in Tamil Nadu, it should be clear by now that for them, the Sri Lankan Tamil issue is an opportunity for cynical one-upmanship, and nothing more. There was no clearer evidence of this than at the time of the UPA victory in 2009, which coincided with the last stand of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). After creating a furore over the war in Sri Lanka during the elections, the DMK’s only concern after the results was how many and which cabinet positions the party would get in the new government”.
But then, such is the state of affairs of the Manmohan Singh government these days that it has virtually succumbed to the pressure from Tamil Nadu and decided to support, at the ongoing 19th Session of the UN Human Rights Council at Geneva on the issue of reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka, the U.S.-sponsored resolution that urges Sri Lanka to address rights violations alleged against its army in the final phase of the war against the LTTE in 2009. On March 19, Prime Minister Singh virtually vetoed his own foreign minister S M Krishna who on March 14 had assured the Parliament that India would consider all dimensions of the issue before taking a final decision on the voting-issue. The Prime Minister said that India was ‘inclined’ to vote for the US sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka (this happened on March 22). And what is most surprising is that the Prime Minister said this even without knowing what exactly was the content of the US resolution, because, as Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai told the press on March 21, “ At this point in time, we do not have the final text of the resolution”
In my humble opinion, external affairs minister Krishna had given a balanced statement to the Parliament on March 14. Let me quote extensively from that statement: “ The end of the long period of armed conflict in Sri Lanka in May 2009, left around 3,00,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) living in camps in Northern Sri Lanka and general devastation of infrastructure in the affected areas. Since the end of conflict in Sri Lanka, the focus of Government of India has been on the welfare and well being of the Tamils citizens of Sri Lanka. Their resettlement and rehabilitation have been of the highest and most immediate priority for the Government. The Prime Minister, in June 2009 immediately after the conflict announced a grant of Rs. 500 crores for relief, rehabilitation and resettlement work in Sri Lanka….
“I would like to underline that it is mainly as a result of our constructive engagement with the Government of Sri Lanka and our considerable assistance programme that a modicum of normalcy is beginning to return to the Tamil areas in Sri Lanka. There has also been progress given the withdrawal of emergency regulations by the Government of Sri Lanka and the conduct of elections to local bodies in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka…..
“Several Hon’ble Members of the House have raised the issue of alleged human rights violations during the protracted conflict in Sri Lanka and on the US-initiated draft resolution on ‘Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka’ at the ongoing 19th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Concerns have been expressed by various quarters on allegations of human rights violations, including as shown in the Channel 4 documentaries… We understand that the Government of Sri Lanka has initiated a series of measures, including appointment of a Cabinet Sub-committee to monitor implementation of the proposals in the National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP) and reactivating the National Police Commission, in line with the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report. Separately, the Sri Lankan defence authorities are reported to have appointed a Court of Inquiry to look into allegations of human rights violations as required by the LLRC report….
“The Government of India has, nonetheless, emphasised to the Government of Sri Lanka the importance of a genuine process of reconciliation to address the grievances of the Tamil community. In this connection, we have called for implementation of the recommendations in the Report of the LLRC that has been tabled before the Sri Lankan Parliament. These include various constructive measures for healing the wounds of the conflict and fostering a process of lasting peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. We have been assured by the Government of Sri Lanka, including during my visit to Sri Lanka in January this year, of its commitment towards pursuit of a political process, through a broader dialogue with all parties, including the Tamil National Alliance, leading to the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, so as to achieve meaningful devolution of powers and genuine national reconciliation. We hope that the Government of Sri Lanka recognising the critical importance of this issue acts decisively and with vision in this regard. We will remain engaged with them through this process and in the spirit of partnership encourage them to take forward the dialogue with the elected representatives of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Hon’ble Members may be aware that the Sri Lankan authorities had said they would be happy to receive an all party delegation of Members of both Houses of our Parliament. We are working to undertake such a visit at the earliest……
“Several Members have raised the issue of a draft resolution initiated by USA at the ongoing 19th Session of the UN Human Rights Council at Geneva on the issue of reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka. I would like to highlight here that on such sensitive issues we will need to consider the implications of our actions carefully. Any assertions on our part may have implications on our historically friendly relations with a neighbouring country. We would also need to examine whether our actions will actually assist in the process of reconciliation in Sri Lanka, and enhance the current dialogue between the Government of Sri Lanka and Tamil parties, including the Tamil National Alliance”.
Against this background, has the Prime Minister taken into account the implications of his decision on Sri Lanka? As it is, his government is trying badly to repair the damage caused by its folly in Maldives, where the Islamic fundamentalists, thanks to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, have made viral inroads. Are we prepared to commit another blunder in Sri Lanka? What will happen now, as China, which has been systematically wooing Sri Lanka for providing strategic facilities, has, predictably, voted against the American resolution? Besides, what moral authority has the United States on matters of human rights when it closes its eyes on their systematic violations in its allied countries, ranging from China to Saudi Arabia? Finally, how is it that India is going to change its traditional position of not supporting any country-specific resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council at Geneva? Has India forgotten its own experience when at the same venue Pakistan was trying to embarrass us over Kashmir? Are we not, thus, creating a precedent by supporting the US in this case relating to Sri Lanka for our enemies to intervene in our affairs?
These are all disturbing questions, affecting vitally our national security.
By Prakash Nanda