By Joy Mitra:
It is not often that a video stirs your conscience from within, but ‘No Fire Zone’ is exactly such a documentary which perturbs emotionally and psychologically so much so that it changes the way one perceives war and its consequences. In 2009 following a 26 year civil war, the government of Sri-Lanka launched a major offensive against rebel forces of the Tamil Tigers or the LTTE.
The imagery in the video is nothing short of being gruesome and disturbing, civilians including women and children are being shot at, civilian residential areas being shelled and bombed from air, there is cacophony and absolute carnage everywhere. But there is one that hits you the most, a man in military uniform sits up two blindfolded men whose hands are tied behind their back and the next moment he very calmly shoots them one after another in the head at point black range, drenched in blood the earth turns red.
These are images that remain etched in your mind and send a chill down your spine every time one thinks of it. They bring out the culpability of Sri-Lankan armed forced in committing grave human rights violations in their war against LTTE and making no distinction between civilians and militia. The Sri Lankan military shelled on large scale the three safe zones where it had encouraged the civilian population to concentrate. It did this even after saying it would cease using heavy artillery. It systematically shelled hospitals on the frontlines. Thousands perished in the first four months of the battle itself and in fact a UN panel of experts reported to Ban Ki Moon that as many as 40,000 may have died.
The documentary was however not released in theatres in India as Central Board of Film Certification did not approve it. But its impact was huge and immediate, and amplified by the subsequent reports. In May 2010, the International Crisis Group published a detailed report on war crimes during the final months of the civil war. The leader of AIADMK party J. Jayalalitha then issued a statement in April 2011 welcoming the report, stating that it confirmed the “human rights violations and brutal repressions that were earlier in the realm of speculation or dismissed as biased or partisan reportage”. She was later sworn in as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. The Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly later in June passed a unanimous resolution which, based on the report, accused Sri Lanka of failure in constitutionally resolving the righteous demands of Tamils since independence, working for complete extermination of the Tamils in the islands, mass killings of innocent Tamils, other atrocities and failure in humanitarian action during the war, continued human rights abuses after the war, and human right abuses on media persons and others outside of war zone. The resolution also urged the Indian government to impose economic sanctions against Sri Lanka until Tamils are given equal rights.
The resolution was obviously not accepted by the central government, headed by the United Progressive Alliance, which despite voting for the resolution at UNHRC against Sri-Lanka, realised that India could ill-afford an unfriendly neighbour in Sri Lanka which could have deleterious consequences for India in the Indian Ocean region both economically and security wise. Tactically, the calibrated line that UPA chose to follow was in line with pandering to the Tamil community at large while watering down the resolution tabled by the US led west at UNHRC to avoid the geopolitical risks of alienating Sri Lanka. The politics of the issue meant that all the state parties of Tamil Nadu, in trying to sell themselves as the custodians of Tamil interest, vouched for the toughest possible position that India could take while the centre, in keeping with its political imperatives, continuously tried to tone down the resolution while voting for it, doing a delicate balancing act. Domestic politics was dictating our foreign policy. Not that UPA was facing an easy choice; it had to decide whose interest to protect, and how to define the interest of the state, was the interest of the Tamil people conflicting with the interest of the Union of India or were it the same?
To stop the flare up of the sentiment in Tamil Nadu, the government in its wisdom decided to ban the documentary because the arousal of jingoistic and xenophobic sentiments on the issue would have meant very little room for maneuvering both diplomatically and otherwise on the Tamil question on Sri Lanka, affecting peaceful and political resolution of the issue and hardening of stance on both sides. But the strategic angle is the one which must not be under estimated. In the aftermath of the release of the documentary and the subsequent huge international pressure and outcry on the human right abuse committed and accusations of ethnic cleansing against the regime in Sri Lanka meant that despite the balancing act done by UPA, India voted for the resolution. The implications were immediate in that Sri Lanka cozied itself up to an increasingly creeping China in India’s neighbourhood. China voted against the resolution and was offered the port at Hambantota which is a deep sea port having maritime security implications for India, which in the foreign policy circles is also referred to as part of the ‘String of Pearls’ strategy.
As India tries to deal with the problem of whether it lives in a China shaped neighborhood or an India shaped one it cannot lose sight of the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka who have faced brutal repression and ethnic restructuring which continues till date, whether or not No Fire Zone is banned, it will continue to be a stark reminder and exposition of the horrors and horrendous sufferings of the Sri-Lankan civil war but more importantly it will create political and strategic ripples in India’s neighborhood which it must deal with both mellowed emotional sensitivity and pragmatic strategic thinking.