Continuing the series of who is “response-able” for events in Sri Lanka, this blog considers the role of the Indian Government and also Indian Civil Society.
Is India really a responsible power?
David Cameron’s praise for India does not take into account its abject failings in Sri Lanka.
As David Cameron’s remarks about Pakistan ‘looking both ways’ caused a furore this week, many have accused him of looking too much in one direction – positioning himself squarely against Israel’s ‘prison camp’ in Gaza (1), siding with Turkey over its EU accession (2) and championing India as Britain’s key partner in the subcontinent. Calling India a ‘beacon to our world’, he praised its economic power and tradition of democratic secularism.(3) Cameron also gushed over its role in Afghanistan, saying ‘India matters to the world because it is not only a rising power but a responsible power as well’.(4) But if Pakistan can be chastised for looking both ways on terrorism, then surely India deserves censure for turning a blind eye against war crimes and human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.
Over a year after Sri Lanka’s brutal armed conflict against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) came to an end, credible reports of war crimes and human rights violations continue to surface. A damning report issued by the International Crisis Group earlier this year cited evidence of the Sri Lankan army shelling hospitals.(5) It also put the civilian death toll during the final months of the conflict at over 30,000 (6) – a figure hard to confirm in light of Sri Lanka’s continuing restrictions on media and humanitarian organisations. This week alone, it was reported that NGOs were withdrawing from the Vanni as a result of tightened restrictions (7) and that a TV/radio station was attacked in Colombo.(8)
The humanitarian situation also remains dire. Though the majority of the 300,000 civilians originally displaced by last year’s hostilities have now been released, just a fraction have been able to return to their original homes and most are struggling to survive. In addition to the 40,000 war survivors still languishing in displacement camps, more than 10,000 alleged insurgents (including children) are being held without charge or access to legal representatives.(9) In short, the Government of Sri Lanka has failed to keep its promises of proper relief and rehabilitation, and has done little to promote reconciliation or justice for victims.
Throughout, India has quietly supported the Sri Lankan government, in military, financial and diplomatic terms. For years India secretly provided the Sri Lankan army with helicopters and small arms.(10) The Indian navy is said to have played a critical role in destroying the Tigers’ naval capacity.(11) And there was full intelligence cooperation, including passing on the names of Sri Lankan human rights defenders meeting in India for security reasons.(12)
After the end of the conflict, the Indian government led the international push back against the call for a war crimes inquiry and worked behind the scenes to ensure that the UN Human Rights Council overturned a condemnatory resolution(13) and actually congratulated Sri Lanka on its conduct. It also lobbied hard for Sri Lanka’s IMF loan.(14) Tellingly, India was the first country that Sri Lanka trusted to provide de-mining specialists just after the conflict ended.(15) Why? Could it have been because it was confident that these loyal personnel would not report on the mass graves that have since been documented?
So why would India, with its 60 million-strong Tamil population, act this way? The answer lies partly in the past. The humiliating deployment to Sri Lanka of the Indian Peacekeeping Force in the 1980s and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE soured India’s support for the separatists and demonstrated its military weakness (some have said the Sri Lanka was India’s ‘Vietnam’).(16) Equally important, of course, is India’s wish to send a strong message to its own plethora of separatist movements.
Most pertinent, though, is China’s growing influence in the region. By becoming Sri Lanka’s biggest military and aid donor, not to mention investor, China has been able to add the island – strategically important as a oil route – to its ‘string of pearls’, the chain of military bases guarding its oil supply and exports.(17) After getting its hands burnt by Burma, India has been keen to keep Sri Lanka on side to regain the ‘geopolitical edge’ – a situation that the Sri Lankan government has happily exploited.
China’s role in South Asia and other parts of the world is not just a worry to India. Last year, a US Senate Foreign Relations Committee report argued against alienating the Sri Lankan government because of its growing ties with China.(18) But if India wants its global aspirations as the world’s biggest democracy to be taken seriously, it must prove that it can be foil to China’s authoritarian capitalist foreign policy. If India truly wants to be a responsible world power, it must start by correcting its abject failings in its own backyard.
5 International Crisis Group, War Crimes in Sri Lanka – Asia report No. 191, (17th May 2010), p. i
6 Ibid; p. 5
18 US Senate Committee, Recharting US strategy after the war, Dec 2009, pp. 2-3. Download here: [http://foreign.senate.gov/search/?q=sri+lanka&as_sitesearch=http://foreign.senate.gov/reports&x=16&y=15