are surging to the surface in India's Sri Lanka
The deep bonds of ethnicity,
culture, geography and history make India and Sri
Lanka inseparable. Yet this is also a tragic story
of the imperatives of geopolitics and the
compulsions of domestic politics crisscrossing
plain human dignity and compassion - especially
for the land that gave birth to Mahatma Gandhi.
But for contemporary India, politics comes
first. And politics is pitiless. Tamil nationalism
has been traditionally a pond that the Indian
politician occasionally visited for rejuvenation,
and its attraction is growing as party politics in
India has become highly competitive.
Indian Parliament went into an uproar on Tuesday
as two rival regional parties from the southern
state of Tamil Nadu, which have
been vocal supporters of
Sri Lankan Tamils, demanded to know the central
government's stance on a resolution on Sri Lanka
coming up at the United Nations Human Rights
Commission (UNHRC) in Geneva.
resolution is sponsored by the United States,
France and Norway and it seeks the UN to assist
Colombo to investigate alleged atrocities or "war
crimes" committed by the state security forces
during the bloody civil war as as well as
implement measures of reconciliation.
matter of high principle, India should be
supportive of the resolution. India is no more
defensive about the human-rights situation in
Jammu and Kashmir. In pragmatic terms, it even
suits the ruling Congress party in the central
government in New Delhi to project itself as the
protector of Tamil interests. Tamil Nadu sends 39
lawmakers to India's 540-member parliament.
In terms of realpolitik, too, India
increasingly strives to harmonize with the
international community; it recently attended the
meeting of the "Friends of Syria" in Tunis, and
voted in favor of the Arab League resolutions in
the UN Security Council and the General Assembly,
which sought to condemn Damascus on its appalling
Suffice to say, a
good case can be made why New Delhi should support
the US-sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka.
But New Delhi is dithering. India pursued
a cold-blooded policy of helping the Sri Lankan
armed forces decimate the Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam. It was sweet revenge for the LTTE's
murder of former Indian prime minister Rajiv
Gandhi in 1991. To distance itself clinically at
this point from the river of blood that flowed in
Sri Lanka, therefore, becomes problematic.
Yet to be seen condoning the Sri Lankan
army's war crimes is also antithetical to what
India would like to profess as a democratic
As if the contradiction were not
bad enough, New Delhi had estimated that its
decisive role in helping Sri Lanka vanquish the
Tamil Tigers would enhance its prestige and
influence in Colombo. However, the LTTE's
destruction has only led to triumphalism in
Riding a wave of Sinhalese
chauvinism, Colombo overnight turned its back on
the assurances held out to New Delhi that once the
LTTE was done with, a fair, just and equitable
solution to the root problem of Tamil alienation
could be found. Plainly put, New Delhi's capacity
today to nudge Colombo in that direction is
One way it could resume its
historical prescriptive role toward Colombo would
be by playing a "creative role" at the UNHRC to
negotiate some sort of modus vivendi
between Colombo and Washington. But then, Colombo
has shut its doors to any intrusive UN role in its
From the Indian
viewpoint, Washington is also not helping matters.
The assistant secretary of state dealing with
South Asia, Robert Blake, continued the tirade
against the Sri Lankan political establishment on
Experience in many civil conflicts
around the world has shown that countries that
don't take adequate measures to address
reconciliation and accountability frequently
experience a regeneration of the insurgency that
they faced. We could see very much that similar
situation in Sri Lanka.
Washington wouldn't allow a weakening of its
resolution, which is expected to pass in the vote
next week. A minister in Colombo promptly called
for a boycott of US products.
time Evidently, although India and the US are
soulmates with regard to the Indian Ocean region -
they will stage yet another big naval exercise in
the Bay of Bengal in April - and the "containment"
of China in the region, New Delhi cannot afford to
Sri Lanka is also
astutely playing its "China card" - apart from
stepping up high-level exchanges with Pakistan.
Colombo has lately enthroned China on the same
pedestal on which India used to be uniquely
perched historically as Sri Lanka's privileged
On March 1, Sri Lanka's powerful
Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa (brother of
President Mahinda Rajapaksa), who was a pivotal
figure leading the military campaign against the
Tamil Tigers, was received in Beijing by Chinese
State Councilor and Defense Minister Liang
Liang expressed gratitude for
Colombo's support for Beijing's "core interests"
and affirmed that China would continue to support
Sri Lanka's "efforts in safeguarding state
independence, sovereignty and territorial
integrity and realizing social and economic
Liang stressed that Beijing
hoped to work with Colombo to "consolidate and
deepen mutually beneficial cooperation and improve
communication and cooperation between the two
armies". Even more interestingly, he observed that
China and Sri Lanka had "similar historical
situations and wide common interests".
Upon Rajapaksa's return from Beijing, the
Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry issued a statement
last Thursday appreciating China's "firm and
consistent support in safeguarding Sri Lanka's
sovereignty and territorial integrity".
The discourse is manifestly aimed at the
policymakers in New Delhi (and Washington).
Colombo is telling the Indians to go and tell it
on the mountain if they have notions of dictating
policies to Sri Lanka. Quite obviously, Beijing is
also quietly but unambiguously warning New Delhi
that there is a price to pay for aligning with the
US and disregarding China's "core interests" in
the Asia-Pacific region.
But what is
brewing ahead could profoundly transform the
entire great game. Hopes are rising that the
seawaters around Sri Lanka contain significant
hydrocarbon reserves - especially the Mannar area
straddling the maritime boundary with India (known
as Palk Strait).
Now, this could turn out
to be the South China Sea in reverse for
Sino-Indian ties. New Delhi has rubbished
Beijing's protests and asserted its determination
to collaborate with Vietnam to explore oil in the
disputed waters of the South China Sea.
Beijing warned of consequences if New
Delhi persisted. It is payback time when Beijing
decides whether or not to accept Colombo's fervent
invitation to come and prospect for oil in the
Palk Strait in the waters that have lazily lapped
India's southern coastline from time immemorial.
New Delhi is frantically wooing Colombo
not to disregard its sensitivities by allowing the
Chinese to come in such close proximity to its
coastline. A team from India's oil major ONGC
Videsh visited Colombo in recent weeks to make a
counter-offer, which was followed by an extended
four-day visit by External Affairs Minister S M
Krishna. But the Sri Lankans are noncommittal. A
senior official of the Petroleum Ministry in
Colombo told the British Broadcasting Corp on
They [Indians] have a lot of
experience. Their knowledge is more than ours -
they have a lot of seismic knowledge. And they
have the funding - if we're picking partners,
they tick the boxes. But we'd like to see a
diversity of investors.
Colombo would "write to the whole world",
including China. Indeed, many countries have shown
interest, ranging from Russia's Gazprom to
Vietnam's state-owned PVEP (PetroVietnam
Exploration Production Corp) to France's Total and
some Australian, US and European companies.
Put plainly, Sri Lankans insist that the
Indian Ocean isn't India's ocean, but they are
prepared to negotiate over it. They are highly
sophisticated practitioners of diplomacy and will
see how Indian diplomats behave in Geneva.
Sri Lanka expects India to stand up and be
counted as its friendly neighbor when the US-led
resolution in the UNHRC comes up for voting. That
expectation is going to be the bottom line for
future India-Sri Lanka relations.
the other hand, the ruckus in the Indian
Parliament on Tuesday also rang the warning bell
that the tsunami of Tamil nationalism could engulf
the Congress-led coalition government in New
Delhi, which critically depends on the backing of
All this is being played out
against a poignant backdrop of infinite tragedy
with secret video recordings surfacing on the
brutal point-blank execution of an innocent
14-year-old boy at the closing stage of the Sri
Lankan war for no fault of his except that God
willed him to be born as the son of the late LTTE
leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. The cup of Tamil
anger will overflow after British television
released the documentary on Wednesday.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a
career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His
assignments included the Soviet Union, South
Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan,
Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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