Columns - From The Sidelines

India throws Sri Lanka under the bus
By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

The US finally managed to get its pound of flesh at the UN Human Rights Council, scraping through with just 24 of the 47 member countries' votes to have its resolution against Sri Lanka adopted. All the EU members in the Council were of course on board.

But with the undecided states (in Latin America and Africa) the superpower doubtless used all the artillery in its diplomatic arsenal, including bribes, threats and every kind of pressure to induce them to bow to its dictates.

The 15 countries that opposed the resolution were outspoken about their reasons for doing so. But Sri Lanka had been outmaneuvered in advance, as it became evident when the final tally was taken.
Cuba was the most articulate, speaking at length on US double standards to expose the hypocrisy behind the seemingly innocuous wording of the resolution.

China, Russia, Ecuador, Bangladesh, Thailand and the Maldives, among others, took the floor to support the stance that Sri Lanka needed time and space to allow its reconciliation process to succeed, and that the resolution was unjustified. In so many words what many of them said was, Sri Lanka already had a sound basis for reconciliation in place in the form of the LLRC report's recommendations, so what was the idea in forcing unwanted "assistance" down its throat?

It was argued variously that by selectively targeting one country, the resolution undermined the Council's spirit of cooperation and dialogue. That being country-specific, it exceeded the mandate of the Council, which had now opened the door to politicization. It disregarded the well-established norm of allowing domestic mechanisms to run their course before taking a matter up at the intergovernmental level. It constituted interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign member state. A dangerous precedent had been set for the future deliberations of the world body, especially in relation to developing countries. 'Human rights' was being used as a political weapon.

Ever since their failed attempt to skewer Sri Lanka with a resolution at the HRC in 2009, there had been simmering resentment in the western bloc, that found common cause with revenge-oriented Tamil groups fronting for the LTTE. Those (mainly European) states that were sharpening their knives ever since, got a 'turbo boost' with the US entry into the Human Rights Council. Hillary Clinton even visited India last year and met Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalitha Jeyaram, to test the waters in the neighbouring Tamil stronghold.

India's vote in favour of this resolution was no doubt the unkindest cut of all - not least because India's stance may have influenced the voting of those who were still on the fence. After vacillating for weeks without declaring its hand, finally India succumbed to the pressures of its own domestic political battles, and its small neighbour simply became 'collateral damage’. No amount of apologetic explanation from India can alter the fact that Sri Lanka has now suffered an irreversible setback in its own battle to counter overseas-based forces working to destabilise the state.

India's initial statements indicated it really had no appetite for this resolution. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said in the Lok Sabha that India does not support country-specific resolutions. With the Dravidian parties becoming strident in their demands that India back the resolution, and with the DMK threatening to pull out of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wrote to DMK leader M Karunanidhi. He had (again) threatened to launch a fast. “With regard to the resolution in the UNHRC, we are engaged with all parties in an effort to achieve an outcome that is forward-looking and that ensures that rather than deepening confrontation and mistrust,” Singh said.

The AIADMK and DMK as usual competing with each other to 'champion the Tamil cause' in Sri Lanka, continued their agitation, with unruly scenes in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. They were supported by some CPI and BJP members. External Affairs Minister S M Krishna was pressed to make a formal statement spelling out New Delhi's thinking on Sri Lanka. On Thursday 14 March he gave a lengthy explanation of India's engagement with post-war Sri Lanka, and the rationale behind it. Still, all that he committed to was to say that “the Government will bear in mind the views and sentiments expressed in this House, and once a final view is taken Government will keep the Parliament informed.” No decision had been taken to support the resolution.

Matters came to a head for the UPA when it ran into confrontation with another key alliance partner, the Trinamool Congress. The TC has 19 members and the DMK 18 members in the Central government. Trinamool's Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal, was up in arms over a proposed nation-wide rail fare hike. The Railways Minister, a member of her party, had resigned over the issue.
Trinamool Congress may even have been a bigger worry for the UPA than the DMK, whose threats have become routine. But by now it looked as if the UPA government's viability itself was threatened, and securing the DMK became imperative. Perhaps in New Delhi it was a question of 'who was more important - Chennai or Colombo?' To make matters worse, Congress fared badly in a number of state assembly elections around this time. Congress was challenged on many fronts.

So on Monday 19 March, just four days before the HRC debate, came the announcement by Prime Minister Singh in parliament that India was "inclined" to vote for the US-backed resolution. And the DMK was mollified. India's rail fare hike has been rolled back. And Sri Lanka has fallen through the cracks in Geneva.

Sri Lanka was the focus of another fiasco in the Indian parliament, soon after Manmohan Singh had given the assurance that the Tamil parties sought. This incident as reported in the 'Indian Express' took place in the Rajya Sabha, immediately after the defeat of the amendments to the President's address on the National Counter Terrorism Centre, which ended with the entire opposition walking out. Some AIADMK and CPI members then returned to the House and demanded a division on amendments proposed by them, “expressing regret that the address failed to take note of the need for political solution to the Tamil problem, violation of human rights and war crimes against the Tamils, and attacks on Indian fishermen by the Lankan Navy.”

Now the AIADMK and CPI knew very well that they would be defeated in such vote, seeing that the opposition was not present. The move was intended purely to embarrass and upstage their arch- rival the DMK which, being a Congress ally, would be compromised in this situation. When a division was called, the amendments were predictably defeated, with nine voting for and 84 against. The DMK members were compelled to leave the chamber during the vote in order to save face.

The episode well illustrates the fickle, opportunistic nature of Tamil Nadu politicians, to whose tunes the central government is forced to dance. Thanks to their games of one-upmanship, Sri Lanka's Tamils whose 'cause' they claim to espouse have to deal with an increasingly polarized political landscape, with positions hardeniing all round.

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