Sri Lanka issue is about human rights, not Tamil sentiment

Last Updated: Fri, Mar 08, 2013 05:58 hrs

Last year, India was among 24 countries that supported a resolution against Sri Lanka that was put to vote at a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva on March 23. Our statement then was guarded.

This year, when we have more evidence of war crimes and atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan forces against Tamils on the island, our Prime Minister announces that the way India votes at the UNHRC will depend on the wordings of the final draft of the already watered down US resolution.

Last year’s session was held in the aftermath of a documentary on Sri Lanka’s final Eelam War, by Channel Four, which showed actual footage of Tamils being lined up and shot, hospitals being shelled, and military men walking among the naked bodies of bleeding women.

This time round, even more damning evidence has surfaced – there are heartrending photographs of Velupillai Prabhakaran’s 12-year-old son huddling in a barracks-type shelter, chewing despondently on a biscuit, wearing the same shorts he was photographed dead in. We see a man in military fatigues standing guard over him, we see the boy looking up at someone, and then we see him in the photographs from last year, bullet holes in his body. It was ascertained by experts that he was shot at close range.

And yet, this is all India comes up with – an ambiguous statement.

This, from the country that prides itself on being something of a leader in the subcontinent, that aspires to be considered a developed nation, a world leader with high economic growth.

Bad news. Economic growth alone doesn’t make a superpower.  A strong political stance does. Ideally, India should have taken the initiative, and brought in a resolution by itself, condemning the methods used by Lankan forces against Tamils in the nation, and asking for an inquiry into the allegations. The US resolution in its current form does not even use the word ‘genocide’, the term used by several Indian MPs during the debate over the issue on March 7, 2013, in Parliament.

Ironically, the Indian government has been asking its Sri Lankan counterpart to “fulfil its public commitment to implement” the thirteenth amendment on devolution of powers. Both Manmohan Singh and Salman Khurshid appear oblivious to the fact that Mahinda Rajapakshe has already said there will be no further devolution of powers to Tamils.

We cannot pretend that we don’t have a responsibility towards Sri Lankan Tamils. BJP leader Yashwant Sinha pointed out that India had not only accepted Sri Lanka’s contention that a ceasefire would allow the LTTE to gain the upper hand, but “also committed their navy to help break the back of the LTTE sea tigers, which was instrumental in the Sri Lankan army winning the war”.

Nor can we continue pretending this is about Tamil sentiment. In an article I wrote for The India Site last year, which subsequently caused a Denial of Service attack to the site, I pointed out that passing off a human rights issue as an ethnic concern is a convenient untruth.

It suits both the central government and that of Tamil Nadu to look at the alleged war crimes and the treatment of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) through the prism of ‘Tamil sentiment’. Speaking of ‘Our Eelam brothers and sisters’ has become an important point in election rhetoric in Tamil Nadu. At the national level, it allows the Indian government to portray its stance on Sri Lanka as concern for the sentiments of one of its constituent states, and not as an international issue.

The DMK, which has remained in the UPA throughout the war in Sri Lanka and after, now complains about having been left in the lurch by the Congress. However, the truth is that it made political sense for the DMK to stay in the UPA, making token protests against India’s equivocal policy on the war.

Now, the question has moved far beyond political alliances. We have documentary proof of systematic rapes, killings, and torture. A three-part investigation by the media into the human rights violations in Sri Lanka has been screened across the world. And India’s assurances that the safety and security of Sri Lankan Tamils is a crucial concern have not been bolstered by action. Dialogue with the Lankan government on the issue doesn’t make sense when the Lankan government’s mechanisms are impeding the implementation of these measures.

For India to be locking horns with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa over whether members of the Sri Lankan military can undergo training in India or not is shameful. And debates over whether Sri Lankan sportsmen should be participating in a meet in India or not are ridiculous. We can’t look at these instances independently; we need to start seeing them as part of a larger policy in our dealings with Sri Lanka.

It’s time the government stopped rattling off figures of Tamils who have been killed by Velupillai Prabhakaran. Yes, Prabhakaran was the leader of a terrorist outfit. He was no hero. His guerrillas forced civilians into war, and used them as human shields. But Prabhakaran is dead, and the war is over. His son committed no crime that merited torture and death. Neither did the Tamils who were crowded into an ever-shrinking NFZ (No-Fire Zone) in the last days of the war.

There has been too much rhetoric on what is right, and what steps India will take. Instead, we need to look at a strong future policy, and our stance at the UNHRC will reinforce that.

We could begin by rethinking our trade relations. India-Sri Lanka bilateral trade is at a record high, and it is Sri Lanka that is trying to boost its economy. Secondly, our involvement in development projects in the education and health fields in Sri Lanka needs to be conditional – we need to ensure that there is development in the North as well.

India is wary of China’s growing influence in Sri Lanka. In fact, at last year’s resolution, China was among 15 countries that supported Lanka. And it would be uncomfortable for India to be surrounded by hostile nations.

However, we can’t aspire to superpower status if we continue to hedge our bets on human rights violations. At some point, we will need to take on China in this battle for South Asian supremacy, and we can’t constantly be unprepared in terms of defence, infrastructure and economy. We need to recognise the brutalities in Sri Lanka for what they are, and formulate a strong policy that cements our authority in this region.

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The author is a writer based in Chennai.

She blogs at