India: To be or not to be with Lanka

Sri Lanka's High Commissioner in New Delhi may have committed a diplomatic indiscretion by having referred to the "friendship" that certain Tamil Nadu legislators and politicians have had with the LTTE. To have made such a remark, just when India is having difficulty in making up its mind on which way to vote on the US-sponsored anti-Sri Lanka resolution at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva is doubly worse. He has been made to retract the comment, but plainly put, he has only said something that is public knowledge.

The South Block, India's External Affairs Ministry has summoned him and called for a clarification, but such clarification can also be obtained from its own spy agencies. Not only is India's - and Tamil Nadu's connections with the LTTE a historical fact, it is no doubt, though admittedly to a much lesser degree, a contemporary fact.

There is a famous maxim in the diplomatic world, that an Ambassador is sent abroad to lie on behalf of his country. Conversely then, it would seem he is also sent to not tell the truth. And so, Sri Lanka's High Commissioner must apologise and keep the peace with India.

From all accounts, Indian Government leaders are having sleepless nights deciding which way to vote on the US resolution. We saw some drama earlier this week in New Delhi. One can only come to the irresistible conclusion that it was the ruling coalition partner, the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) that scripted the drama, and its leader, a well-known script writer of yesteryear authored it himself.

In this instance, the DMK took up cudgels with the Indian President's references to Sri Lanka in her address at the opening of the new sessions of the Lok Sabha (Parliament). They threatened to quit the wobbly coalition and crash the Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi government if India did not vote in favour of the anti-Sri Lanka resolution. Then, just as suddenly, they withdrew the threat.

Not to be outdone by the theatrics, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, an actress of yesteryear herself, joined the chorus and asked the central government to vote for the resolution. All this while Sri Lanka stubbornly remained mighty shy of engaging these Tamil Nadu politicians.

Act 3 of the drama is the entry of the Indian External Affairs Minister on to the Sri Lankan stage. This is what he says:
"Our primary objective in all that we are doing in Sri Lanka is to ensure the welfare and wellbeing of Sri Lankan Tamils…..
"…. Our objectives, as always continue to remain the achievement of a future for the Tamil community in Sri Lanka that is marked by equality, dignity, justice and self-respect."

The Tamil community in Sri Lanka, especially those living in the coastal areas of the Northern Province will not know whether to laugh or to cry. While the Indian Minister sheds what are clearly crocodile tears, his officials are mapping out strategies to legalise poaching in Sri Lankan waters around the Palk Straits and the Mannar Basin area and allow Indian fishermen to come in their hundreds and deprive the Tamil community in Sri Lanka of their livelihood.

These officials are trying to re-write the rules of fishing in these areas and hold Sri Lanka to ransom by dangling issues like the vote at the UNHRC. When the last Joint Working Group on Fisheries met in Colombo, while Sri Lanka had insisted on adherence to the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) between the two countries to stem poaching, India maintained a deafening silence. And it says that its objective is to ensure the "equality, dignity, justice and self-respect" of the Tamil community of Sri Lanka.

The latest poaching related arrest was of 22 Indian fishermen near Mannar on February 27. All of them were promptly released on the intervention of the Sri Lankan government. If a Sri Lankan fisherman strays into Indian waters he is held in custody for more than a year.

There are ten of them in Indian custody right now, while no Indian fisherman remains in Sri Lankan custody. While Sri Lankan fishermen in the North are restricted from fishing in some areas, Indian fishermen brazenly enter these no-go areas knowing full well that India flexes its muscle on the issue to keep Tamil Nadu quiet. And what is more, it engages in 'bottom trawler fishing', a method by which it scoops the fish from the sea bed leaving little behind and causing irreparable environmental damage.

The Indian position on Sri Lanka has often been triggered by the dynamics of Tamil Nadu's vote- crazy politics. The one recent exception was India looking the other way when the LTTE, which killed one of its former Prime Ministers and more than a thousand of its soldiers, were liquidated militarily in 2009.

But they would want to keep the 'pot boiling' so to say, to gain maximum leverage over Sri Lanka, over its domestic politics and geo-political considerations. India will continue to press for '13+' hoping it would carve out a powerful autonomous Northern Province which it can use as its base on Sri Lankan soil through its proxy - the Tamil National Alliance.

In the 1980s, India was against Sri Lanka getting close to the US. Today, it is trying to elbow out others to brush shoulders and do business with the US. Its current concern is Sri Lanka's closeness to China.

India's vacillation over the vote on the US resolution is fraught with intricacies. It has to be on the good side of the US. Yet, it does not want China to go one-up by supporting Sri Lanka while India votes against Sri Lanka. No doubt it needs to worry about the domestic pressures from its regional partners, and the sustainability of its very coalition government due to constant blackmailing.

But this issue seems to have been somewhat defused with the DMK withdrawing its threat to walk out. And then, India's local mission must surely have briefed the powers-that-be in New Delhi that for effective, and genuine, reconciliation in Sri Lanka there is a need to 'move on' without wallowing in the past, and that would be what the majority of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka would want.

The people of the North would also want electricity, television sets, fuel, roads, houses and schools - and to be able to fish without intruders. Supporting country-specific resolutions can come back to bite India one day, and it is aware of this inherent danger.

While Sri Lanka lost the plot in allowing a resolution to be introduced against it, and now must fight with its back to the wall in Geneva, India's position on Sri Lanka is not to be envied.

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Editorial Archive 2012 
01st January 2012 - The hopes and fears of 2012
08th January 2012 - Education fails
15th January 2012 - Ties with India vital but not at any price
22nd January 2012 - Handling India the President's way
29th January 2012 - Political stability - not autocracy
05th February 2012 - Freedom struggle continues overseas
12th February 2012 - Lesson from the Maldives: Listen to the people
19th February 2012 - Belt-tightening must start at the top
26th February 2012 - Good governance the answer
04th March 2012 - Treasury acting like the Kremlin
11th March 2012 - Women as Agents of Change
18th March 2012 - India: To be or not to be with Lanka
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