By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has recently made a strongly worded statement related to Sri Lanka’s ‘national question’ in response to questions raised by a member of the Communist Party of India.
Reiterating India’s commitment to the protection of the rights of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, Swaraj has been quoted in the Indian media stating “The anguish with which the members have raised the issue (of crimes committed during the war of 2009), the government associates itself with the same pain.” She has further stated “Our aim is to protect the interests of Tamils in Sri Lanka. You can achieve this through two means: by either doing it forcefully or through persuasion with the friendly country.” Further elaborating, the Indian External Affairs Minister has stated “As Sri Lanka’s closest neighbor, India cannot remain untouched by the developments in that country. We hope that with the sagacity and political will of its people, Sri Lanka will achieve genuine reconciliation and development”.
Swaraj’s involvement in shaping Indian foreign policy has been in the wane since her choice for Foreign Secretary, Sujatha Singh, was made to retire to make way for incumbent Foreign Secretary Dr Subramanyam Jaishankar in January 2015, the handpicked choice of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. From then onwards, foreign policy direction has been from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) rather than from the External Affairs Ministry. The making of Indian foreign policy is currently well entrenched in the hands of the triumvirate of Prime Minister Modi, National Security Advisor Ajith Doval and Foreign Secretary Jaishankar. India rushed Defence Minister Arun Jaitly and Doval to Colombo in November 2014 in the wake of the visit by Chinese nuclear propelled submarine ‘Changzheng 1’ accompanied by PLA Navy escort warship ‘Chang Xing Dao’ to Colombo. This time around, twice hospitalized for suspected pneumonia and Kidney failure in April and November 2016, Swaraj’s broadside may be an effort by India to make its displeasure known, in the backdrop of the unfolding Hambantota Port project and visit to Sri Lanka by Chinese Defence Minister General Chang Wanquan. India obviously cannot be overjoyed of current developments related to the Hambantota Port project.
Meanwhile, the India Foundation, an independent research center focused on the issues, challenges and opportunities of the Indian polity, in association with the state Government of Haryana and National Investigation Agency hosted the 3rd edition of the Counter Terrorism Conference CTC 2017 from March 14 – 16, 2017 in Delhi. The theme was ‘Terrorism in the Indian Ocean Region’. The Vice President of India, Shri M. Hamid Ansari, addressed the inaugural session and encouraged countries in the region to unite and fight terrorism in all its forms and manifestations to curb and eliminate the scourge of terrorism. He added that states sponsored terrorism must be isolated by the international community. The Vice President also stated “in recent years nothing has caused greater pain, disruption and inconvenience to societies, governments and individuals than the phenomenon of terrorism.” On D 3, Indian Foreign Secretary Jaishankar chaired Plenary IV session on ‘Cooperative Mechanisms for Countering Terror in Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Other dignitaries present during the inaugural session were Prime Minister of Sri Lanka Ranil Wickremesinghe (via skype), Deputy Prime Minister of Nepal Shri Bimlendra Nidhi, Union Minister for Railways Shri Suresh Parbhu, Chief Minister of Haryana Shri Manohar Lal Khattar, and Minister of State for External Affairs Shri M.J. Akbar.
Besides Prime Minister Wickramasinghes’s participation, Tamil National Alliance Chief and Sri Lanka’s Leader of Opposition Rajavarothiam Sampanthan participated in the event. In his address, Sampanthan stated 150,000 Tamils lost their lives and fifty percent of the Tamil population had fled the country during the three decades old conflict. Sampanthan’s theme ‘Ballot vs Bullet’ supported LTTE terrorism on the basis of a “classic instance, in which the bullet filled the void created by the failure in the process of the ballot”. He thus justified his canoodling with LTTE terrorists and his stance of the LTTE being the sole representatives of Tamil people in Sri Lanka, which tune he changed after the LTTE was defeated on May 19, 2009. Sampanthan failed to address issues such as the number of Tamil (and other) lives that could have been saved had Operation Liberation (Operation Vedamarachchi) been permitted to be completed without Indian intervention. Neither was there any mention of the number of Tamils (both LTTE and civilians) killed by the LTTE and Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) during its presence in Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka for three years. Sampanthan is also aware, most of Tamil political elite were killed not by members of Sri Lankan armed forces but by LTTE terrorists.
It is indeed ironic, most Indian leaders feel compelled to take up the issue of Sri Lanka’s ‘national problem’ involving the Tamil community. Yet, its leaders do not show any inclination towards resolving the ‘Kashmir problem’ in their own backyard which has been festering since 1947. The struggle for autonomy by Kashmiri separatists and efforts by India in containing the separatists has led to India stationing over 500,000 soldiers and para military forces in Jammu & Kashmir since 1987 which it describes as a ‘disturbed area’. J&K is perhaps the most militarized region in the world. It also introduced the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in 1990. AFSPA considered as ‘draconian’ by activists, protect members of security forces from prosecution for alleged Human Rights abuses and empower security forces to search, detain and use lethal force against any person acting against the law. The much-maligned Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in force in Sri Lanka till recently does not exempt members of Sri Lankan armed forces committing acts of Human Rights abuse from prosecution. In effect, India does not display towards its own Kashmiri population, half the concern it professes for Sri Lanka’s Tamil population. India’s moral bankruptcy was highlighted when it repeatedly voted against Sri Lanka during successive UNHRC resolutions in Geneva. At the same time, it has repeatedly rejected requests from international bodies to carry out fact finding missions on Human Rights abuse in Kashmir. Interference in the fight by Tamil people in Sri Lanka for self-determination yet ignoring the fight by people of Kashmir for self-determination in India’s own backyard is sheer duplicity. Should not what’s good for the Goose not be good for the Gander? Or, does having a 1.2 million man army besides almost another 1 million reserve troops and a nuclear arsenal exclude India from practicing what it preaches?
Sushma Swaraj refers to “crimes committed during the war of 2009”, but is silent on the crimes committed by all parties including IPKF until 2008. The 300,000 Tamil civilians used by LTTE as human shields and rescued by members of Sri Lanka Armed Forces in 2009 seem to have slipped Swaraj’s memory.
Despite India’s obsession with terrorism since the Mumbai terror attack in November 2008, its involvement in the housing, nurturing, training and arming of LTTE terrorists from early 1980s need no elaboration. Nevertheless, India’s long involvement with LTTE terrorism did not even warrant mention at the recently concluded Counter Terrorism Conference in Delhi. In this backdrop, the call by President of India, Shri M. Hamid Ansari in his inaugural session for countries in the region to unite and fight terrorism in all its forms and manifestations to curb and eliminate the scourge of terrorism sounds hollow. Prior to state sponsored terrorism being isolated by the international community, it would be constructive for states who sponsored terrorism to share lessons learnt from their past misdeeds with terror groups, besides pledging non-recurrence.
Sri Lankan leaders need take note of Sushma Swaraj’s statement “You can achieve this through two means: by either doing it forcefully or through persuasion with the friendly country.“ In this day and age, no civilized nation makes such open threats, even to a small and hapless neighbor. It is a thinly veiled threat. If persuasion does not work, it will be done forcefully. Meanwhile, Sri Lankan leaders, in the midst of a severe financial crisis and no tangible assistance forthcoming from the west and India, have no choice but to turn to China. The Colombo and Hambantota Port Projects no doubt is the cause for considerable worry to India. Yet, threats of ‘forceful’ methods, certainly is not the way to wean Sri Lanka away from China.