(Published in Sify.com on 25 April, 2011, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/sri-lanka-s-war-crimes-will-india-take-a-stance-news-columns-le0kySfahhi.html)
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India is, perhaps, the only country in the world that is surrounded by former, current and prospective enemies.
Even more bizarrely, each of our neighbours is beholden to us for a timely favour, granted at some time in the past – the weirdest largesse of all being the division of the treasury even as Pakistan was being carved out of British India’s flesh, in a clumsy, excruciating operation.
Now that our ties with our northern neighbour are largely limited to cricket and terrorism – and of course, the occasional exchange of trained militants for incarcerated truck-drivers who got curious about the other side of the border a couple of decades ago – our troubled relationship with Sri Lanka is coming into focus.
India chose to interfere in Sri Lanka’s affairs just as it did in Bangladesh’s, but with far less at stake. Strangely, it was Rajiv Gandhi’s interference in the island nation that backfired, while his mother got away with meddling in politics outside the borders.
After 1991, the Indian government’s relations with Sri Lanka were brought back into the spotlight in the lead-up to the General Elections of 2009, when Priyanka Gandhi decided to rub shoulders with a woman indicted in the conspiracy to kill her father, around the same time it was rumoured that the Congress may turn to Vaiko’s MDMK to strengthen the alliance.
The media in New Delhi saw the situation of the Sri Lankan Tamils as an influential factor in guiding the votes in Tamil Nadu, without realising that the issue was about as remote to a voter from the state as the killings of Hindi-speakers in the North East would be to someone in Sindh province of Pakistan – or, for that matter, to Lakshmi Mittal in the UK.
Even so, the hype around the issue made it sensitive enough for news of LTTE supremo V Prabhakaran’s death to seep through only after the voting was over in Tamil Nadu.
Now, with the increasing number of cases of death and torture of Tamil fishermen, reportedly at the hands of the Sri Lankan navy, India has to be a lot more cautious about how it conducts its handshakes with Rajapakse.
The UN-appointed panel’s report on Sri Lanka, perhaps coincidentally, leaked to the papers within a couple of days of the votes being cast in the Tamil Nadu State Assembly Elections.
With Jayalalithaa waving documents in the air, Karunanidhi can’t simply sit back and write elegies to mourn the death of his dear friends. And, therefore, his allies at the Centre cannot take a stance.
Sri Lanka’s ministers, though, who came back from a joint vacation (if Deputy External Affairs Minister Neomal Perera is to be believed) to find ‘BUSTED!’ scribbled across their walls, got cross because India’s representative in the UN, Hardeep Singh Puri, had met the panel before the report was finalised, and hadn’t suggested that they tone it down.
Whether they expected him to suggest that they change “The Government systematically shelled hospitals on the frontlines. All hospitals in the Vanni were hit by mortars and artillery, some of them were hit repeatedly, despite the fact that their locations were well-known to the Government” to “The Government, out of its humanitarian instincts, accidentally euthanised patients who were dying slowly and painfully, as its subconscious guided its mortar shells to put them out of their misery” is debatable.
But reports say that Rajapakse wasn’t able to get an assurance from Manmohan Singh that India would stand up for the island nation when the report came up for discussion in the UN. While Russia and China could be strong allies, India could (a) make a formidable enemy (b) use its support as leverage in trade.
We can quite safely assume that India will stop short of antagonising Sri Lanka. Chances are that the government will dither for a while, assure the media that it is contemplating all the factors involved (naturally, using terms like ‘weighing the options’ and ‘giving due consideration’), send out an expression of regret, provide token aid to a few token victims, and then invite Rajapakse over to enjoy a cuppa with his counterpart during the next cricket match between the two countries.
But the least the whole world can do is stop pretending to be surprised over the gruesome realities discussed in the report. While most Indian journalists, with a few brave exceptions, toed the line of the Sri Lankan government and faithfully relayed its reports, several correspondents from the BBC World Service and CNN, spoke of horrific crimes in the IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps and No Fire Zones in 2009. The report confirms our worst fears, but is not a shocker.
And the least India can do is demand that the people who conducted the war in Sri Lanka take moral responsibility immediately, whether or not the legal procedures are set in motion, and that they make reparations by providing aid to the displaced refugees struggling to get permission to go out and work in other countries.
But will we call up the courage to do what is right, and use our leverage to stand up for the principles we claim to hold so dear, before we look at its economic benefits?