India-Sri Lanka: Expanding on the Shades of Grey

04 Apr, 2014    ·   4369

Ramesh Ramachandran argues that there is a pressing need for India to change its policy towards Sri Lanka 

On March 27, India, departing from its usual voting pattern on UNHRC resolutions critical of Sri Lanka, abstained from casting its vote on the resolution that approved an independent international investigation into certain alleged war crimes and human rights violations committed by the Sri Lankan government during the 2009 civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The “explanation of vote” by India’s permanent representative to the UN offices in Geneva among other things, stated that “In asking the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to investigate, assess and monitor the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, the resolution ignores the progress already made by the country in this field and places in jeopardy the cooperation currently taking place between the Government of Sri Lanka and the OHCHR and the Council’s Special Procedures. Besides, the resolution is inconsistent and impractical in asking both the Government of Sri Lanka and the OHCHR to simultaneously conduct investigations.” “…adopting an intrusive approach that undermines national sovereignty and institutions is counterproductive,” he added.

Evidently, India's abstention was dictated as much by necessity and self-preservation as by a desire to place bilateralism at the front and centre of New Delhi’s ties with Colombo.

After having voted for the UNHRC resolutions on Sri Lanka in 2012 and 2013, India’s abstention this year was indicative of a course correction in India’s engagement with Sri Lanka that was aimed at retrieving the ground lost in the intervening years, burnishing India’s credentials as a relevant player in the island nation’s affairs and signalling a return to bilateralism as the centrepiece of New Delhi – Colombo ties. If India’s support for the resolutions in the preceding years exposed an utter bankruptcy of ideas on engaging Sri Lanka (thereby implicitly admitting to a failure on the part of New Delhi to either influence the course of events or bring about the desired change in Colombo’s disposition), its abstention should be seen as a belated attempt to pull the relationship back from the brink.

Indeed the muted reactions from the regional political parties provided New Delhi with room to manoeuvre, and in the process, enabled it to reclaim its voice vis-à-vis the Tamil Nadu state government and other regional political parties on foreign policy issues.

Particularly worrying for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs is the phenomenon of erosion of New Delhi’s position in what it calls its sphere of influence. The debate over ways India should have voted at the last three UNHRC resolutions on Sri Lanka is instructive to the extent that it illustrates how far India has come from being an influential actor in its neighbourhood to being a marginal or fringe player. Some key questions were: Was it advisable for New Delhi to vote for the resolutions and risk losing whatever goodwill and leverage it might have had with Colombo? Shouldn’t all other options have been exhausted before India threw in the towel and threw in its lot with the West? India’s abstention this year has partially answered that question.

At present, India cannot claim to adhere to a consistent policy towards Sri Lanka. First it nurtured the LTTE and burnt its fingers in the process. It then extended tacit support to Colombo – before, during and after the end of the Sri Lankan civil war in May 2009 – only to subsequently support the UNHRC resolution piloted by the US. The 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting summit in Sri Lanka was as much in the news for the renewed focus on Colombo’s human rights record as for the Indian prime minister’s decision to refrain from attending it, and instead, leave it to the Indian External Affairs Minister to lead New Delhi’s delegation. In a letter of regret hand-delivered to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Singh informed Rajapaksa of his inability to attend personally but without providing reasons.

Suffice to say that a careful reading of the history of India-Sri Lanka relations would make it evident that New Delhi’s policy towards Colombo can be described as consistently inconsistent, characterised by myopia and self-inflicted crises.
It is time to reshape India’s neighbourhood policy in a manner that reflects the broadest possible national consensus on the way forward in our relations with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Nepal, Bangladesh, Maldives, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. Irrespective of which coalition forms the next government in New Delhi, a reset is necessary. India can ill-afford a Pavlovian foreign policy, and/or framing India’s foreign policy options as a binary choice. There is need for greater appreciation of several shades of grey.