Sri Lanka: India should revise its stance on human rights violations

Sri Lanka: India should revise its stance on human rights violations


Intervening in the Lok Sabha debate on the “Steps taken by the Government of India for the relief and rehabilitation of the Tamils” on August 26, 2011 the Minister for External Affairs S M Krishna referred to human rights violations that had taken place at the end of the Fourth Eelam War and clarified New Delhi’s policy on the subject as follows: “It is for the Sri Lankan Government to investigate and enquire into them and establish their veracity or otherwise through a transparent process. We note …that it is also doing so through the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission”. New Delhi’s stance that the human rights violations are a matter of domestic jurisdiction and it should be left to the Sri Lankan Government to resolve the issue has disappointed the Tamils throughout the world. It had also saddened human rights activists who want India to take the lead in exposing the heinous crimes of the Sri Lankan Government and bring the guilty to book. A change in India’s policy would have been welcomed by the international community, especially the Tamil minority groups in Sri Lanka and 70 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu.

What had been the record of the Indian Government on human rights violations in general and in Sri Lanka in particular? In this essay we have tried to analyse this important subject. In the concluding part, we have argued that India should revise its stance when the matter comes up for discussion in the Human Rights Council this month. The subject is also likely to figure in the UN General Assembly.

Few preliminary observations are in order. The consolidation of Sinhala majoritarianism, sharpened by the competitive politics of the two major political parties, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP), has meant that the majority Sinhalese will have the pride of place and the nation will be built on the basis of Sinhala language and Buddhist religion. Instead of trying to create a political system where multiple identities can co-exist harmoniously in a united Sri Lanka, the polices of successive governments had been to give primacy to the beliefs and value systems of the Sinhalese. The political leadership had opportunities to refashion the political system and transcend majoritarianism and create a nation on a pluralist and inclusive basis, but these opportunities were squandered. Unless this mind set changes Sri Lanka will continue to be in the throes of discontent. In what form the discontent will express itself is to be seen.

Sri Lanka was subjected to stresses and strains from the onset of independence and everybody suffered in the process – the Sinhalese youth, the hill country Tamils, Sri Lankan Tamils and the Tamil speaking Moslems. During a large part of its existence as an independent entity, Sri Lanka was under emergency rule. All ethnic groups suffered human rights violations; whether under the draconian emergency regulations followed by the Government or by the Pol Potist polices pursued by the Tigers. The Emergency Rule has been withdrawn recently, but the notorious Prevention of Terrorist Act (PTA) still continues to be in the statute book. Perceptive observers of the Sri Lankan scene view the decision to withdraw the Emergency as an attempt by the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government to project the image of a country which is interested in reintroducing democratic values. But the timing is significant; it has taken place when human rights violations in Sri Lanka will be discussed in the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The present policy of Indian Government, as mentioned earlier, is to persuade the Sri Lankan Government to enquire into the allegations and take remedial measures. When the subject of human rights violations figured in the discussions of the Special session of Human Rights Council in May 2009, the Indian representative expressed “serious reservations” about the “usefulness” of a special session. The Indian Ambassador/ Permanent Representative Amb. A Gopinathan, speaking on May 26, 2009 pointed out that the over-riding goal of the international community “should be to promote a process of reconciliation and healing”. Amb Gopinathan added that the Council should have focused on “human rights violations of the non-state actors, especially terrorist groups”. The Indian delegate added that what Sri Lanka needed was “international assistance” to help in ameliorating the manifold problems suffered by the IDPs. Amb. Gopinathan proceeded to spell out the concrete measures taken by the Government of India in this direction.

The outcome of the debate was deeply distressing. As the Human Rights Watch pointed out the UNHRC passed a “deeply flawed resolution”. Ms Juliette de Rivero, Geneva Advocacy Director of the Human Rights Watch, mentioned the UNHRC “did not express its concern” over the fate of the IDPs detained by the Sri Lankan Government. The resolution, which was passed at the end of the two day debate, largely “commended” the Sri Lankan Government for its policies. The resolution was passed with 20 votes in favour, 12 against and 6 abstentions. The demand for “accountability and justice” did not find favour with many countries. In Geneva India was in the “ideal company” of China and Russia.

India cannot afford to follow a foreign policy of cynicism as China does and buttress regimes in neighbouring countries which flagrantly violate human rights. China’s record had been abysmal in this score, providing legitimacy to the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, underwriting the military junta in Myanmar and providing assistance to Pakistani military set up in its anti-India tirade and extending clandestine assistance in the nuclear programme. It is high time that India goes back to the Nehru-India Gandhi era, when we were in the forefront opposing tyrannical regimes that were practicing racial segregation. It may be recalled that India played a leading role in opposing the apartheid regime in South Africa. During the Rajiv Gandhi years, India mobilized the members of the Commonwealth and got the racist Rambuka Government in Fiji expelled from the Commonwealth. When the Pakistani Government was committing genocide in East Pakistan, not only the Government of India, but also the opposition parties and non-governmental organizations were in the forefront in exposing the crimes of the Pakistani Government. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited many countries including the United States pleading for international intervention against the oppressive Pakistani Government. Still more interesting, with the co-operation of the Government of India, Jayaprakash Narayan undertook an extensive foreign tour, lasting six weeks in May-June 1971, in order to awaken the conscience of the international community. Jayaprakash Narayan visited Cairo, Rome, Belgrade, Moscow, Helsinki, Bonn, Paris, London, Washington DC, New York, Ottawa, Vancouver, Tokyo, Jakarta, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and met the leaders of the Governments as well as the opposition. JP was assisted in this great task by academicians like Prof. Sisir Gupta of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and various non-governmental organizations.

It may be recalled that in the months following July 1983 communal holocaust in Sri Lanka, India was in the forefront exposing the crimes of Sri Lankan Government and championing the human rights of the Tamils. The Indian Embassies in various countries extended the much needed assistance and encouragement to Tamil human rights activists. The need of the hour is for New Delhi to say good bye to its policy of ambivalence on Sri Lanka and come out into the open to expose the true nature of the Sri Lankan Government. In Geneva when the matter comes up for discussion in the UN Human Rights Council India should take the lead and call for the institution of an international enquiry under the UN auspices. History will not forgive us if we try to shield the tyrannical Sri Lankan Government once again. The Government of India should also simultaneously encourage eminent jurists like Justice Bhagawati and Justice Rajinder Sachar to visit foreign countries to awaken the conscience of the world. The expertise of South Asia specialists associated with Jawaharlal Nehru University and Madras University, non-governmental organizations like the Asian Centre for Human Rights and the Center for Asia Studies in Chennai should be harnessed to provide the much needed intellectual inputs.

Sri Lanka, as Prime Minister Indira Gandhi stated in August 1983, is not “just another country” and what happens in the island will have its repercussions in India. If a fire rages in your neighbourhood you must extinguish the fire before it engulfs you. This policy was adhered to by New Delhi in the case of Sri Lanka even before 1983. Three illustrations are given below to substantiate this point. When the first organized ethnic violence took place in Colombo in 1958 and large scale death and destruction was the order of the day, then Indian High Commissioner YD Gundevia met Governor General Oliver Goonatileke and candidly told him that the Tamils were feeling unsafe in the national capital. Amb Gundevia suggested that it is better to shift them to the safety and security of Jaffna peninsula. The Governor General concurred with this view and with Indian assistance ships were arranged and those Tamils who wanted to leave Colombo were transported to Kankesenthurai. There were few hundreds of Sinhalese living in Jaffna at that time, their lives were not in danger, but as a pre-emptive measure they were brought back to Sinhalese areas. During the height of the Fourth Eelam War Prof. Suryanarayan used to narrate this incident in several forums and used to plead that the Government of India should get in touch with the United Nations and members of the European Union and suggest that those innocent people who were trapped between the Sinhalese Lions and the Tamil Tigers should be immediately evacuated from the war zones and shifted to safe areas. Unfortunately his voice was a voice in the wilderness. And what is more deplorable when the leaders of the Tiger guerrillas got in touch with Indian diplomats and told them that they would like to surrender they were advised to approach the Sri Lankan armed forces and hold aloft the white flag of surrender. As the human rights organizations have graphically illustrated some of those who held aloft the white flag were mercilessly shot down. The Indian hands are tainted with the blood of the innocents because we were unwittingly accomplices in the heinous crime. As Lady Macbeth has put it, “Here is the smell of the blood still, all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand”.

The second illustration took pace in middle of 1981 when large scale riots took place in the hill country engineered by powerful forces within the ruling UNP and carried out by the lumpen sections of Sinhalese population. Their objective was apparent – to pressurize as many Indian origin Tamils as possible to go to India before the Sirimavo- Shastri Pact expired. The Indian High Commissioner Thomas Abraham deputed two of his junior colleagues Gopal Gandhi and Ranjan Mathai (present Foreign Secretary to the Government of India) to the plantation areas to make an on-the-spot study of the situation. Gopal Gandhi and Ranjan Mathai reported that the riots were masterminded by leading members of the ruling party. Thomas Abraham immediately proceeded to the riot affected areas, though WT Jayasinghe, Foreign and Defence Secretary, tried to dissuade him on the plea that the Government will not be able to provide him with adequate security. Thomas Abraham told WT Jayasinghe, “I am going to meet my people. I do not require your security. Courtesy demands that when the High Commissioner leaves the capital, he should inform the Foreign Office”. Thomas Abraham was shocked with the senseless violence taking place in the plantation areas. In one of his memorable statements, which made many of us proud, Thomas Abraham declared that if the Sri Lankan Government could not restore law and order and provide security to the Indian Tamils, India would have to think of taking its own steps. The chauvinist elements in Sri Lanka accused him of interfering in the internal affairs of the country, but Thomas Abraham stuck to his principled stand. The warning sent shock waves within the Sri Lankan Government circles. It had its desired effect, President Jayewardene acted swiftly and normalcy was restored in the hill country.

The third illustration took place in July 1983, when Amb. Shankar Bajpai was the Additional Secretary in charge of Sri Lanka and Bernard Tilakaratne was the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in New Delhi. Five days before the organized riots took place; Shankar Bajpai summoned Bernard Tilakaratne to the Foreign Office and told him “about India’s concerns about what was happening in Jaffna”. Bajpai made particular reference to the Emergency Regulations that were operative in Jaffna permitting disposal of the dead without inquests. The Sri Lankan envoy ventured to ask whether the “concern” was conveyed from Tamil Nadu. He was told that the concern was being expressed “at the highest political level”. Understandably the Sri Lankan press reacted hysterically accusing India of “meddling with the internal affairs of Sri Lanka”. “Big brother, shut up” was one of the screaming headlines in a newspaper. Much water has flown through the Ganga and the Mahaveli since then and Indian policy towards the island has become one of bending backwards to placate its neighbour. Another incident deserves mention. During the height of the Fourth Eelam War when civilian casualties were very high the South Block expressed its concern through its web site. The senior officials did not want to even summon the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to the South Block.

The need of the hour is for India to undertake a thorough reappraisal of its Sri Lanka policy and make the necessary changes so that it is in consonance with the traditions of Nehru-Indira Gandhi years. The international community will be watching how India will react to the situation in the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly when the matter comes up for discussion.

Prof. V Suryanarayan is Senior Research Fellow at Center for Asia Studies, Chennai. Ashik Bonofer is Research Fellow, Center for Asia Studies, Chennai