Incremental progress

Incremental progress

India-Sri Lanka relations

If the expectation in Delhi was that assisting Colombo to win the last phase of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) two years ago would augment India’s wherewithal to push for a just settlement of the Sri Lankan Tamil problem, it was never quite realistic. The leadership of president Mahinda Rajapaksa chose to build on the nationalistic fervour following the defeat of the LTTE to consolidate his political power.

Nothing wrong here — Rajapaksa won’t be the last politician, either, to use the nationalistic card to boost democratic power. In the Sri Lankan socio-cultural milieu, the danger lies in Rajapaksa’s political indebtedness to the nationalist sentiments from which he derives mandate. Anyway, things were going splendidly well for Rajapaksa when there has been a sudden reversal of fortunes.

The report by an ‘expert panel’ appointed by the United Nations Security Council on the alleged excesses of the Sri Lankan army in the concluding phase of the war holds unpleasant downstream consequences. Colombo’s initial reaction was of indignation and anger — not unjustified, by any means — that it was being singled out in the global war on terrorism.

The rhetorical posturing helped the Sri Lankan leadership to rally domestic opinion, but Colombo seems to have since switched to the diplomatic track to try and finesse the situation to its advantage by constructively engaging the world powers who are influential.

Why not? Sri Lanka is a gifted country which has an extraordinary grasp of the seamless mysteries of international diplomacy. In its soft-spoken, scholarly foreign minister G L Peiris, Colombo also holds a trump card. (Despite AIDMK leader Jayalalitha’s demand that Rajapaksa should be tried for war crimes, Peiris wrote a decent letter to her, congratulating her on her magnificent election and seeking to ‘work with her’ for the welfare of the people.)

Significantly, Peiris started his odyssey with Delhi from where he has proceeded to Beijing. This isn’t surprising. From Colombo’s perspective, India’s stance is going to be very crucial, while China’s can be helpful. Indeed, China’s stance would also be influenced by the stance India takes.

Quite obviously, Peiris arrived in Delhi last week when the India-Sri Lanka relationship was somewhat piquantly poised. Colombo is keenly hoping that Delhi would take a stance that puts paid to the scandalous UN expert report. So far, Delhi has been sitting on the fence, literally dangling its feet, lost in thoughts. Indications are that Peiris who knows that politics is the art of the possible, succeeded under the circumstances in getting the Indian leadership to begin talking. And the conversation turned out to be engrossing, too.

Empathy and understanding

The fact that a joint statement has been issued after the visit clarifies that a broad convergence may have emerged. Peiris told the media that Delhi showed ‘empathy’ and ‘understanding.’ It may be short of outright support he expected over the UN report, but it is incremental progress. The joint statement underscores that the Indian leadership sought to broaden the discourse to cover the range of issues in the bilateral relationship and to set a new sense of direction in the ties within which the ruckus over the UN report can be tackled.

Colombo appears receptive — for the present, at least — to the Indian counselling more than at any time in the past two-year period since the war was won, about the imperative of a genuine national reconciliation in a spirit of give-and-take and with a long-term vision that would settle the Tamil problem. The joint statement reflects the Indian thinking and it is significant that Colombo concurs. Specifically, it must be noted that the joint statement singled out that “A devolution package, building upon the 13th Amendment, would contribute towards creating the necessary conditions for such reconciliation”.

The joint statement suggests that Delhi would have advised Peiris that the best means of responding to the UN report would be to expedite national reconciliation and to conclude a credible inquiry of its own into war excesses. However, the two countries are not holding their broader relationship hostage to the entanglement over the UN report. Which is a good thing.

The strategic ties are being enhanced, including in energy and defence. Most certainly, it is only within the matrix of deep engagement that Delhi can hope to influence Colombo optimally, in a climate of trust and confidence, to accelerate a fair settlement to the Tamil problem.

India should not be party to any big power pressure tactic toward Sri Lanka. The fact is that Delhi actively assisted — rightly or wrongly — Colombo to win the war. And Delhi couldn’t have been unaware of the brutalities of the Lankan war. India has fought more counterinsurgency wars than any other country in modern history and would know such wars are invariably very brutal. In this particular case, there is also a moral dimension insofar as Indian policies toward the LTTE were never really consistent — and, indeed, Delhi’s attitudes toward Colombo also took tragic twists and turns in the period since 1983.

At the end of the day, national reconciliation in Sri Lanka remains a very complicated process. The underlying paradox is that Sri Lanka is a genuinely functioning democracy. Rajapaksa cannot be compared to Slobodan Milosovich. Nor is the injection of geopolitics or the superimposition of the ‘new great game’ into the Sri Lankan situation desirable. India’s priority lies in ensuring regional stability.

(The writer is a former diplomat)

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