Sub-regional pressures affecting India’s foreign policy is not a new phenomenon. Mamata Banerjee has been playing spoiler for a while now with regard to the Indo-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement and the Teesta Water Agrement. And the exigencies of Tamil Nadu’s politics, have, of course, impacted India’s relations with Sri Lanka and vice-versa for decades. But New Delhi must stand firm now against pressure from the southern state.
Last week’s unanimous resolution in the Tamil Nadu assembly asking Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to stay away from the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) to be held in Colombo in November is not likely to be the end of the matter. The decibel level will almost certainly rise as the date draws nearer. But the calculations Singh must make are very different from those of, say, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper who has made it clear he will not attend.
Colombo’s actions in the wake of the LTTE’s 2009 defeat have been and continue to be highly problematic. The Sri Lankan government may have made the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee’s report on the fighting that ended the LTTE public, but it has largely failed to act on the recommendations therein. Worse, the report did not even call for investigation into alleged violations of international humanitarian law on a massive scale. And both Amnesty International and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay have issued damning indictments of Colombo’s increasingly authoritarian policies. There are reports of journalists being killed and Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajpaksa’s illegal impeachment and removal of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake in January is as clear a red flag as any.
If the Commonwealth nations had as a group decided to shift the venue or boycott the meeting, it would perhaps have sent a strong message to Colombo. But failing that, it makes little sense for New Delhi to do so alone and lose what leverage it has with the Sri Lankan government. After all, many of the positive developments since 2009 have an Indian imprint the massive reconstruction effort and the recent elections in the Northern Province, handily won by CV Wigneswaran’s Tamil National Alliance. In the same vein, New Delhi has a better chance of pushing back against the troubling developments since the indications, such as a Sri Lankan Supreme Court ruling last month, that elections notwithstanding, little authority will devolve to the Northern Provincial Council in a true sense if it does not cut itself off from Colombo.
If it were the only regional power Colombo could look to, a harder stance might have worked. But the Indian Ocean region is not a geopolitical vacuum. Beijing has shown itself all too keen to step in with significant investment in infrastructure projects such as the port of Hambantota, the Katunayake-Colombo expressway and the Lakvijaya Power Plant. If Manmohan Singh caves in to Tamil politicians’ demands and cedes space to Beijing, he will lose his chance to push for the 13th Amendment’s implementation and the resultant devolution of power. And it will be the Tamil people of Sri Lanka who pay the price for it.