India has tried to strike a balance between support for the Sri Lankan government and calls for Tamil rehabilitation - ultimately backing the UN resolution urging Sri Lanka to investigate abuses of international law during the final phase of the civil war. Behind this lie a number of external, internal and strategic factors.
As the US began to move its successful UN resolution against Sri Lanka, the Indian government faced some difficulty in striking the right balance between its internal and external affairs. India attempted to support its neighbour in the council, while calling for reconciliation and Tamil rehabilitation in the future. In the end it supported the resolution, but many of the factors that influenced India’s stand on this sensitive issue remain in place.
India and Sri Lanka: A brief timeline
Under Indira Gandhi’s governance in the 1980s, India adopted a sympathetic policy towards Tamil insurgency. Strong support from Tamil Nadu helped the Tamil insurgents arm themselves, which severely intensified the civil conflict in Sri Lanka. India then decided to send the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to enforce the ceasefire as per the Indo-Lanka accord signed in 1987. The IPKF was blamed for killing civilians of both Sinhalese and Tamil descent. An attempt by the IPKF to kill LTTE supremo, Velupillai Prabhakharan, also failed. Due to its failure to establish peace and the huge numbers of casualties that followed, the IPKF was called back from war. Essentially, the IPKF was unsuccessful and this miserable failure impacted on much of India's foreign policies, warfare, technology, intelligence and diplomacy.
On 21st May 1991, the LTTE assassinated the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. This inhumane attack on the beloved Indian leader invoked a huge amount of hatred among the people of India. Since then India avoided any direct involvement in Sri Lanka’s affairs, though support was extended for peace talks in Norway. But the current UPA government led by the Congress party under the leadership of Ms. Sonia Gandhi has always acted in favour of Sri Lanka against the LTTE. In 2007, Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka, army chief of Sri Lanka, said in an interview that India was supporting his forces by training eight hundred officers free of charge.
As the Rajapakse-led government became engulfed again in civil war in mid-2006, New Delhi supported it, due to its past experience and also to the political situation in Tamil Nadu. India publicly called for a political solution to the civil war, but covertly supplied military equipment and training.
Wikileaks cables released show that India protected Rajapakse from international influence. The cables show talks between US and Indian diplomats, in which India insists on a political solution after the war rather than a call for ceasefire. India hinted about humanitarian concerns but did not call for a halt. Numerous attempts by the US were deterred by the Indian government. It may be inferred that New Delhi had concerns about the LTTE’s intentions for a separate state, since a successful Eelam in Sri Lanka would strengthen regional separatist activities in India, particularly in Tamil Nadu.
When clear signs emerged that the ousting of the LTTE was imminent, India took a stand in support of the Sri Lankan government as Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee called on the LTTE to drop its arms, surrender and release civilians. The civil war faced the most cruel, heart-rending, structural, systematic killing - genocide. As the war ended, India volunteered to offer 1000 crores (10 billion rupees) worth of reconstructive services, 50000 houses for Tamils and called for political reconciliation. To prevent international interference in war-crimes investigations, the Sri Lankan government setup the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee (LLRC) to investigate human rights violations and to plan rehabilitation for Tamils.
Current situation: Decision factors
China has aided Sri Lanka with weapons during the war and has voted in favour of the island in this issue, so Indian opposition would strengthen China’s strategic foothold in Sri Lanka. China has a strong navy compared to Indian capabilities and in case of war, China might use the island nation as its base, making the southern regions of India vulnerable. This strategic move, to prevent Chinese influence in Sri Lanka, continues to reflect on the Indian stand against US resolutions.
Mr. Subramanian Swamy, the Janata Party President, has further elaborated the position that if India supports actions against Sri Lanka then it will make it vulnerable to resolutions against India in terms of Kashmir and Manipur. The potential danger behind this issue is undeniable since there are cables released that exposed systematic torture of civilians by the Indian government. The cables show that the UN, Red Cross and ICRC have evidence of beatings and electric shocks given to civilians and militants.
Another point is that the International Crisis Group in its executive report released on 23 June 2011 says, “It [India] should also work towards the establishment of a truth commission that would examine the injustices and crimes suffered by all communities, including those committed by all parties during the Indian army’s presence in northern Sri Lanka in the late 1980s. Acknowledging the suffering of all communities will be necessary for lasting peace.” So bringing all parties to justice would call for action against Indian soldiers, which is unlikely to be tolerated on Indian soil. Also, it is alleged that Indian assistance to the civil war was enormous. Therefore a trial might bring Indian interests into the limelight where diplomacy has been maintained so long.
There are other issues, such as the US's concerns over Chief Minister Narendra Modi's role in the Gujarat riots of 2002. Since Mr. Modi is seen as a possible Prime Ministerial candidate, a concern over him could invite foreign intervention in the internal affairs of India.
On the other hand, the political parties of Tamil Nadu such as DMK, AIADMK, BJP and most of the other parties promptly raised their voices in parliament to support the US resolution. Since DMK is an ally of the UPA government, Congress was forced to maintain a neutral voice. Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh wrote a letter to Dr. Karunanidhi stating that India was looking for a solution that was favourable for all concerned parties and that any investigation could spoil future reconciliation efforts.
Some separatist organisations have raised loud demands for a separate country of Tamilnadu in India. The Tamilnadu MPs have assured their fellow-parliamentarians that they are not separatist, but warned that any action taken against Sri Lankan Tamils would hurt their counterparts in India. Such calls have dominated the government’s agenda provoking some alarming responses from the Indian Government. It is notable that the United Nations Special Rapporteur, Christof Heyns has asked India to repeal the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which gives security personnel sweeping powers to search, arrest or even shoot people. As Sri Lanka moves against India in retaliation at the United Nations, India’s decision to support the resolution has already started to backfire.