The other neighbour

The next move by the incoming government on Sri Lanka has to one that will balance domestic interests and the greater Indian national interest.

At the height of the protest movement in Tamil Nadu (in March 2013) calling for intervention and investigation of the human rights abuses that had taken place during the Sri Lanka civil war, 11 of the protestors died from self-immolation. The agitations were organised and co-ordinated by groups who believed in a greater Tamil nation and saw themselves as seeking justice for their kinsmen. Led by small student group movements and savvy mid level politicians, the protests were weak and uninformed, with misguided groups that managed to hold the state and the country at ransom for a war that had ended 3 years ago. The stirring, timed to coordinate with worldwide Tamil diaspora protests and just before the UN resolution in March was successful at one level. It forced India to vote for the resolution that encouraged Sri Lanka to take action on the alleged war crimes and investigate reports of human rights abuses. These agitations and political blackmail succeeded in twisting India’s arm to put appeasement of domestic alliances ahead of national security. Even more worrisome was the gradual weakening and vacillating nature of the foreign office that did not have the power, capacity or acumen to make calculated investments in strategic strengthening of relations with countries in its own neighbourhood.


After voting twice for the resolution in 2012 and 2013, last month, India abstained from voting on a stronger, more substantial piece that called for an independent investigative agency that would assess and monitor the situation in Sri Lanka. The abstaining vote, coming just before the general election has resulted in a lot of hand wringing by parties in Tamil Nadu and expressions of concern and promises by the two major parties. The vote to abstain from the resolution has also been met with equal amounts of despair by human rights organisations and quiet appreciation from officials who realise the nature of the game. With the possibility of a new government at the centre and an increasingly hostile neighbourhood, India did well by abstaining. It helps keeps the options open for dialogue and pressure between the two countries and also lets the next government set its own policy to deal with neighbours.

India has not had a strong, sustainable foreign policy that would have effectively helped it weather the violent turbulence in the region. The economic boom of the 90s in India helped, and indirectly increased the standing of the smallest states in the neighbourhood. This combined with the emergence of nationalist, strong leaders in these countries led to sentiments and movements that should have been anticipated. The rivalries that these small states would push for and exploit should have also been expected. The civil war in Sri Lanka has been 25 years in the coming. Given the degree and nature of involvement that India had with the country since before Independence, India should have been prepared for this situation. India’s constant battle with its own parties and its temptation to put morality ahead of realism led to a policy that was at its best standoffish and at its worst one that led to the death of more than 1200 Indian soldiers and a prime minister. It has also led to it being seen as a wall flower in the arena leading to inraesed closeness between Sri Lanka, Pakistan and China, and the effective hijacking of its policy by western interests.

The lack of a coherent foreign policy and an effective neighbourhood doctrine has resulted in India’s inability to call the shots on what matters and to whom it should matter on the international stage. India has been side-lined and made negligible in the Indian subcontinent, and this has been for a large part its own fault. It failed to recognise the politics of immediate friendships and the significance of close regional allies hence ignoring the most basic lessons of foreign policy. It is also indicative of a failure at a larger scale to create policies that have a strong core built on national interest, strategic partnerships and long-term objectives and one that can be moulded and adapted to fit in changing domestic and regional movements.

That the US, UN and the EU have managed to push India into a corner should not be surprising. The countries that today call for investigation, and trial for war crimes against a country that managed to defeat a known terror organisation, have kept quiet about the horrific crimes against the minorities in Pakistan and against the brutal killing of an entire population in Balochistan. Far greater violence has been meted to innocent, impoverished civilians in these areas. What is strategic for the US has become a violent neighbourhood for India with refugees, terrorist groups and radical movements having easy access to the country. None of the countries that pushed for the resolution against Sri Lanka have talked at length about these violations. Countries like the US have managed to use the UN as their own personal platform to mete out judgement and justice as they see fit. To persist in toeing the line drawn by these institutions will be to abide by international engagement rules are detrimental to Indian national interests.

India should use the vote to put itself back in the drivers seat. It has to keep prodding Sri Lanka to abide by its resolutions that would give the Tamil people in the north the justice and the autonomy that they demand without dividing the country itself. It has to push for rehabilitation, and acceptance of refugees. Sri Lanka has not inspired much optimism with its insistence on clamping down on rights activists and Tamil organisations around the world. As important as it is to bring the chapter of civil war to a close, it will be far more effective if it is done in a manner that is inclusive and gives the Sinhalese Tamil their rightful place in the country’s growth and future. India can make itself useful by being an effective mediator and bringing about a resolution that will bring both parties to the table and ensure peace. It has to override regional movements within the country, movements like the PMK and other minor parties that seek to foment trouble and ensure that the national interest is given greater importance. Refugee rehabilitation should be made a priority.

By abstaining to vote on the resolution, India now has the ball in its court. By refusing to abide by west led interventionist movements and by firmly opposing any move by the US, UN, EU and other western nations to dictate its foreign policy, India has made one right move. By refusing to be put in a situation that would push for confrontation and making an enemy out of a friendly neighbour, India has made its position clear. The next move by the incoming government has to one that will balance domestic interests and the greater Indian national interest.

Photo: Juan Salmoral