Of course, there was an (implied) reference to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa writing twice in the past weeks to Prime Minister Manmonhan Singh on the UNHRC vote, and urging the Centre to vote for the resolution and against Sri Lanka. Other political party leaders in the State, starting with former DMK Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, have also spoken in similar vein. Union Ministers belonging to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress have said that the Centre would take a decision that could be of help to the Tamils in Sri Lanka. V Narayanaswamy, Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, was quoted as saying as much as what non-Congress leaders in Tamil Nadu have said, or demanded. So has State Congress president B S Gnanadesikan, since. Minister Krishna in his media interaction at Chennai, like his other Congress ministerial colleagues, listed out the India-aided facilities for the Tamils in that country.
However, a section of the media has seemingly misquoted another observation of Minister Krishna at Chennai, as if to imply that as per the federal practices of the Indian scheme, the Centre would take on board the sentiments of Tamil Nadu, as expressed by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, while taking a position on the UNHRC vote. The ‘federal’ reference instead related to another missive from Chief Minister Jayalalithaa to Prime Minister Singh on the ‘unannounced visits’ of Sri Lankan VIPs to the State, at times causing security issues (and thus avoidable embarrassment). Even in this letter to the Prime Minister, Jayalalithaa had said that the people of the State were “greatly exercised” over the Sri Lankan Government’s handling of the Tamils issue, and said that that “Sri Lankan VIPs should be allowed into the State only after consulting the State Government.”
Though the Chief Minister had referred to Thirukumaran Nadesan, a Tamil married into the family of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, being attacked while on a pilgrimage to Rameswaram a few weeks ago, there have also been other unsavoury incidents involving other VIPs from that country. On the Chief Minister’s letter in this regard, Minister Krishna had this to say: “We are a federal State. We have the greatest respect for States. Whatever is the assessment of the State Governments, we will take it seriously, but we will see how we can reconcile the issue… I would like to assure the Chief Minister that her opinion will certainly be factored in the decision we are going to take.” The misquoting or interpolation of Minister Krishna’s observation on one issue into his comments on another issue, both relating to Sri Lanka, did sent out confusing signals on the Indian stand at Geneva.
Competitive politics, containment policies
Independent of the Chief Minister’s missive on Geneva, or the DMK predecessor’s public statements and pleadings with Prime Minister Singh through his party parliamentarians, there is no doubt that the otherwise divided Tamil Nadu polity is agitated over the Geneva vote, and wants New Delhi to support the US-sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka. As may be recalled, throughout the period of ‘Eelam War-IV’ in Sri Lanka (2006-09) and even beyond, political parties and some pan-Tamil groups in the State have made virulent attacks on the Centre, and personal attacks on political leaders, at times even on the Prime Minister in ways the Union of India as the constitutional authority could not be expected to respond in kind. While the larger ‘Tamil cause’ in Sri Lanka needs to be appreciated and local sentiments in Tamil Nadu respected, it has often taken the form of competitive politics, mostly of the immediate electoral kind, seeking to dictate the nation’s medium-term neighbourhood policy and long-term geo-strategic approach.
There is no denying that in a complex constitutional democracy like India, the Government at the Centre will have to take into account the sentiments of the people in particular regions and the suggestions of the local Governments, while formulating specific policies, even if it related to foreign nations, including those in the immediate and shared neighbourhood. As the ‘Bangladesh refugees’ issue (1971) and the ‘Sri Lanka Tamil refugees’ issues (1983 to date) have indicated, the State Governments end up having to bear the burden of the fallouts of the Centre’s neighbourhood and security policies.
The State Governments are thus wholly justified in expecting the Centre to hear them out before addressing specific issues pertaining to neighbourhood policy. It would however be another matter if they were to take those issues beyond the pale of proximity-related problems in neighbouring countries to a level from where they expect the Union of India to act as per their advice on suggestions on all matters pertaining to all related policies involving the chosen neighbour. It is not only the constitutional right of the Centre to enjoy freedom in formulating foreign and security policies, but it is also the constitutional responsibility and duty of the same, to ensure that such policies are executed in ways that the whole of the nation feels secure, going beyond the sense and sentiments of individual State’s people and Government, even if there is absolute unanimity of views within the State on any specific matter or material. It would be more so if the circumstances show that the unanimity in political views may have a share of political and electoral compulsions, going beyond such issues as national security and cross-border ethnic affinity. The Centre is responsible and answerable to the whole nation, and not just one State or two -- though their own sense of security and belonging could not be compromised or allowed to be threatened.
Before the media interaction of Minister Krishna, there was confusion in Tamil Nadu over the Indian position against the UNHRC ‘country-specific’ resolutions. The Indian position on the overall subject was delineated at the UNHRC itself, but it occurred in the midst of the heat and dust generated over Sri Lanka at distant Geneva. The Indian statement at UNHRC on the occasion was made on a resolution relating to Syria, but critics of the Sri Lankan Government, and more so those against New Delhi’s perceived position on the Sri Lankan situation and UNHRC resolution, has other explanations. As a general policy of the Government of India, what applied to Syria should apply to Sri Lanka, too. But the critics drew inspiration from their constant reference to the India-aided counter-draft at the UNHRC only 10 days after the conclusion of ‘Eelam War IV’ in Sri Lanka, when the West likewise moved a resolution against the Government in Colombo on ‘accountability issues’ in the first half of 2009.
This time round, the Indian statement at the UNHRC said that the strength of the UN body lay in its adherence to principles of “objectivity, transparency, non-selectivity, non-politicisation and non-confrontation”. To sustain these attributes, the Indian statement said, the UNHRC would have to ensure “inclusiveness and emphasise dialogue and cooperation”. In doing so, it should be guided by “prudence rather than strategic expediency”, the statement said further. In this context, New Delhi was “concerned that the recent trend and spate of country-specific resolutions may well end up weakening the constructive dialogue and cooperative approach which has prevailed so far in the Human Rights Council”. New Delhi thus commended the 20th session of the UNHRC, due six months hence, as the right forum and occasion for the Council to discuss the country’s case when the four-yearly Universal Periodic Review (UPR) comes up for review. It is another matter that while India voted against Syria at the UN a few weeks ago it recorded abstention at the UNHRC since.
(An ORF Exclusive, N Sathiya