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Analysis: Why India Should Not Have Voted Against Sri Lanka At UNHRC

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By Karmanye Thadani:

The latest heated debate has been over whether or not India made a sensible choice by voting in support of a resolution against Sri Lanka in the UNHRC, condemning the mass murders of Tamils by the Sri Lankan Army. However, another major consideration that emerges from this is to what extent the appeasement of domestic sentiments plays a role in our foreign policy, as we saw not only in this case but earlier in India’s very strong stand against Israel, one of the few countries that has consistently recognized the whole of Jammu and Kashmir as an integral part of India, way into the early 1990s, in order to appease certain elements in the largest religious minority community or second majority religious community who identify more with an imagined global Muslim fraternity or ‘ummah’ more than India and ignorant of how Israel has allowed its own Muslim citizens to excel in all walks of life in spite of the injustices which that country inflicts on the people of Gaza and West Bank, besides other reasons. Extra-territorial loyalties of some elements in certain groups of citizens should not make us overlook our own interests, strategic or economic.

Before someone accuses me of being anti-Tamil or anti-Muslim, I may clarify that I am not making any sweeping generalizations about an entire community. I happen to know personally several Tamils who will always have more of a fraternal sentiment for a fellow Indian, Bihari, Marathi or of any other lingual group, than a Sri Lankan Tamil, and Muslims who would identify more with Indian Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Zoroashtrians or even Jews than Pakistani, Arab, Afghan or Iranian Muslims. The Tamils and Muslims, like every other community, have sacrificed their lives for Indian independence and have also made stellar contributions to the Indian Armed Forces. In fact, two men I admire very much, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam and A.R. Rehman, happen to be both Tamil and Muslim.

I may also add before the more typical human rights folks accuse me of being insensitive to the injustices and atrocities the Sri Lankan Tamils had to undergo that I am aware of what happened to them. In a course on international human rights law I pursued at Oxford University in 2011, we were shown the documentary ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ and a gentleman, after the film got over, informed us how technology at its best proved that the scenes in that documentary were not enacted, establishing that those gruesome events did take place. The whole experience shook me to the very core of my being.

However, the point is — will India’s vote in any way be possibly detrimental to our strategic interests in Sri Lanka at a time when our major economic competitor and strategic enemy is wooing our neighbours to dominate South Asia and when our own military and paramilitary forces can hardly claim a completely clean human rights record? And in what way will this vote help the Sri Lankan Tamils?

As regards the first one, some might argue that the regime in Sri Lanka would be mature enough to not make a very big deal out of this vote and that they have clarified that there will be no strain on their trade relations with India. Maybe so, but it obviously does create an element of souring, as is visible in their latest statement on Kashmir. This vote certainly hasn’t helped India in any way.

Now, let us examine the second question. I do understand that the government of India does have some amount of responsibility to the Sri Lankan Tamils, them having roots in our country and being our cousins with linguistic and cultural ties with Tamils in our own country, we must recognize that they are Sri Lankan citizens and we don’t have the locus standi to interfere beyond a point just as Pakistan doesn’t on issues concerning Indian Muslims or Israel doesn’t concerning Indian Jews (their statements on the Nariman House attacks enraged me beyond belief and when I questioned the Israeli ambassador to India on this once in a public forum in 2010, he was speechless for a while); besides, our responsibility to citizens of another country cannot be discharged at the cost of our own interests, the primary responsibility of the Indian government being to the Indian people.

The biggest stereotype against the Sri Lankan Tamils in the Sinhalese mind is that they see themselves as being Tamil before Sri Lankan and would identify more with a man who speaks their mother tongue living in Chennai than a Sinhalese-speaking man in Colombo. Now, with India taking up their cause in an international forum at the behest of some of their Indian counterparts who identify them as brothers, doesn’t this stereotype get reinforced? I have seen many Indian Muslims who are passionate about their Indian patriotism telling Pakistanis that they can deal with their issues, if any, and Pakistani intervention will only do them harm, the most prominent example being Maulana Madani saying the same to Musharraf in an India Today conclave, a video of which is a must-watch, but anyway. I doubt any Sri Lankan Tamil can actually deny the atrocities his ilk was subjected to, but if he wishes to remain a citizen of Sri Lanka, he would have no choice but to move on and forge a better relationship with his Sinhalese compatriots proving that for him, Sri Lanka comes first and his Tamil identity after that. Indeed, just like it would be wrong to stereotype all Sri Lankan Tamils because of the LTTE which even killed moderate Tamil leaders and also forcibly recruited Tamil boys and even girls to join their ranks, it would be wrong to paint the entire Sinhalese population of that island country which turned Buddhist influenced by missionaries sent out by Ashoka centuries ago, with the same brush because of human rights violations by some Sinhalese soldiers in their army.

Resolutions condemning human rights violations are a political tool in the international law regime. Sri Lanka has warned India that a resolution may emerge against India for the wrongdoings of our jawans in Kashmir. And indeed the comparison is not very, very unfair. The thousands of mass graves discovered in the valley, including of those who were not militants, as DNA evidence shows, establishes that our army, like any other army stationed in a conflict zone with a hostile population, is not free from its rogue elements. In Sri Lanka, it had become a fight to the finish to root out the LTTE, a terrorist organization, and in the war, there were mass killings of innocent Tamils; in the Indian side of Kashmir, the most militarized zone in the world, there has been no war per se with a segment of the local populace, though wars have of course been fought against the Pakistani Army. However, there was and still persists in a much milder form the Kashmiri militancy and this, coupled with the harsh terrain and weather conditions, has given the Indian soldier an incentive to kill ordinary Kashmiris with impunity, alleging that the deceased was a militant, though the Supreme Court ruling carrying a different interpretation of the AFSPA as regards rape and murder may change things for the better.

So, how did supporting this resolution help India or the Sri Lankan Tamils? Not in any way I can think of. Such resolutions only add to the historical record of documenting human rights violations and shaming the perpetrators in the eyes of the international community, but do little to help the victims. So, indeed, what was it that prompted our government to support this very politically incorrect idea? The compulsions of coalition politics with both the major political parties in Tamil Nadu supporting the cause of India voting in favour of that resolution were what triggered off this decision. And why do these parties really care? To answer this question, one would have to turn the pages of history.

The Tamils indeed did have a segment favouring secession from India led by Periyar and Annadurai, the latter being the leader of the DMK, and they called this movement the Dravidstan Movement, which went back in history to assert that the Aryan invasion of India established the North Indians’ continuous desire to subjugate the South Indians and that the Congress of Gandhi, Nehru, Maulana Azad, C. Rajagopalachari (who went on to govern India before Nehru assumed office) and VOC Pillai, the last two mentioned being Tamils, had this very agenda, and that Shaivism as a religion in its true form is distinct and separate from Hinduism! This propaganda sounds no different from that having been presented by Jinnah or Bhindrewale. Some of these Tamil secessionists even wanted arts of Sri Lanka to be included in the sovereign country they wished to create. So, a pan-Tamil separatist movement, similar to that of the Kurds or Balochs, has existed and it came to an end only in the 1960s. Even today, many (not all) Tamils’ strong aversion to Hindi is well known, which shows that while most Tamils are indeed patriotic Indians, the linguistic chauvinism persists which politicians there use as an instrument of divisive politics.

The LTTE did get considerable moral support from many Indian Tamils and when the Sri Lankan Army was fighting the LTTE and even engaging in human rights violations in the process, several Indian Tamils wanted the government of India to intervene and some of them even burnt the tricolour (did they expect the Indian Army to enter Sri Lanka?), proving beyond any doubt that they are Tamil before being Indian, and such people are, in my eyes, not very different from those Indian Muslims who burst crackers on Pakistan’s victory in an Indo-Pak cricket match or those Indian Jews who join the Israeli Army when they can offer their services in the army of the country they were born and brought up in (to digress a bit, the silence of the saffron brigade on this issue concerning the Indian Jews demonstrates its hypocrisy)!

The two major political parties in Tamil Nadu, the DMK and AIADMK, have only played on this feeling of a pan-Tamil (though not, by any means, anymore a secessionist) sentiment even at the cost of national interest, even if most Tamils are very patriotic Indians who don’t share this perception. Indeed, in a visit to Tamil Nadu in 2003, while the people I interacted with were very sympathetic to the LTTE, oblivious of the ground realities in Sri Lanka and what the LTTE was inflicting on the Tamils themselves (it reminded me of how so many NRIs are staunch VHP supporters, in spite of the BJP in India too moving away from Hindutva politics), they unambiguously condemned the murder of Rajiv Gandhi and were fiercely loyal to India. I remember seeing two garlanded portraits in an orphanage in the town of Kumbhakonam near Chennai, and those weren’t of Periyar and Annadurai or even Indian nationalist leaders from the Tamil community but those of Gandhi and Nehru, making me feel proud of the unity in diversity that our country can so legitimately boast of! However, politicians don’t play on unity, they utilize diversity for divisive politics but divisive politics too can have an appeal only if it evokes some support from a sizable section of the population. The resolution seeking clemency for Rajiv Gandhi’s assassin being passed in the Tamil Nadu legislature was one of the most shameful events for Indian democracy, for a foreigner who killed our Prime Minister is being sympathized with by our own government apparatus just because she shares the same mother tongue! Omar Abdullah wasn’t wrong in tweeting that if the legislature of J&K passed a resolution seeking clemency for Afzal, only a conspirator, the nation wouldn’t have reacted so calmly. It’s high time we wake up to the reality of the grave situation. The UNHRC resolution has proved yet again that our strategic interests can be put at jeopardy just for vote-bank politics to appease sections of our society who care more about their religious or lingual group than the country at large.

One might argue that a sense of identification with the same language and culture is natural and that language has always been a strong cementing force. Indeed, Indian nationalism since the days of the Nehru Committee Report drafted by Motilal Nehru has supported a federal system with provinces being given to linguistic clusters and Motilal’s son, Jawaharlal, as India’s first Prime Minister, gave effect to this idea. However, that is one thing and placing that above country-oriented nationalism is quite another. We don’t have to look too far to find an example of an ethnic group that places country before ethnicity. We may just turn to the Pathans in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (formerly known as North West Frontier Province, abbreviated as NWFP) of Pakistan. For a long time since the days of the British Raj in India, Afghanistan has claimed that province to be its own, with the majority of the Afghans and residents of that province being Pathans. However, even today, the Pathans in the province, despite having a sense of affection for those sharing their ethnicity in Afghanistan, are indeed, with very few exceptions, fiercely loyal to Pakistan, rebuffing Afghan claims over their province, and the Pakistani Pathans, except an extremely tiny minority, would never dream of expressing any sort of sympathy for any Afghan Pathan who were to hypothetically murder the Prime Minister of Pakistan, nor did Pakistani Pathans burn Pakistani flags when Pakistan joined hands with the United States of America in its so-called war on terror in Afghanistan.

It’s time we understand that if we see our country as an emerging superpower and would like to proudly identify ourselves as its citizens, if we expect the administrative machinery of this country to meet our needs, then we should place our country, that epitomizes unity in diversity, above everything else, so long as our Indian nationalism doesn’t rob us of our humanism.

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  1. Yeshu Aggarwal

    All said and done. Sri Lanka is a key strategic partner for India down South and for some reason India has never justified its ignorance towards the nations who want to help India. Israel, a country that features in the above discussion, is of course one of them. Instead India has been trying to woo nations like the US, who clearly has not supported India as much as it has supported Pakistan. May be India just needs to completely change its views about foreign relations.

  2. david billa

    srilankan navy has killed more than 500 Indian Tamil fishermen.. what action india took aginst srilankan navy.?? y dont u write abt tat ??…. north and eastern part of srilanka are the homeland of Tamils..  when it is right for bangladesh to have a  seprate state why not Tamils y this double standard .Nw even bangladesh  is not in favour of India. But Independent Tamil eelam will be india’s moral strength . after 1991 china and pakistan offered support to  LTTE which held the entire northern part of lanka but Prabakaran rejected their help bcoz tat will affect India’s security . Till their end they belived in India bt sonia got her revenge oh Tigers….. Now it is a farce to see manmohan cringing to rajapakshe  v need another Indira Gandhi

    1. Karmanye Thadani

      Mr. David, I happen to be the author of this piece and would like to thank you for your comment.  I am aware of the issues that crop up between India and Sri Lanka on the issue of fishermen time and again. And this article isn’t about discussing the dynamics of the relations between India and Sri Lanka in a general sense. As regards whether or not the Tamil secessionist movement in Sri Lanka had any moral justification, that is also another debate outside the purview of the theme of this article. The areticle only underlines that India’s vote against Sri Lanka in the UNHRC against Sri Lanka hasn’t done any good, and has perhaps done some harm, to both India and the  Sri Lankan Tamils, and how it is unfortunate that Indian foreign policy concerns get shrowded by appeasement of certain sections of the Indian society with extra-territorial loyalties. Thanks again.

  3. Karmanyethadani

    Mr. Yeshu, I happen to be the author of this piece and would like to thank you for your comment. Indeed, the very harsh attitude of India against Israel, which always supported India on the Kashmir issue, till the early 1990s was a foreign policy blunder and was, in part, meant to appease the antisemitic or at least anti-Zionist Indian Muslims. The vote against Sri Lanka in the UNHRC is meant to appease those Indian Tamils whose affection for Sri Lankan Tamils exceeds their loyalty to India. Appeasing sections of our society who place extra-territorial loyalties above their loyalty to India seems to be a priority for our politicians, which is shameful as also damaging. Thanks again.

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