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Commonwealth meet in Sri Lanka – Should the Prime Minister attend ?




There is a lot of debate ongoing in terms of whether the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, should attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit, due to be held in Sri Lanka, between the 15th and 17th of November 2013. This was a summit venue that was decided in the year 2009, and was again agreed to in the year 2011. For those who are not so familiar, the Commonwealth is comprised of members who were once part of the British Empire, except the most significant such member (the United States was also once a British Colony, but would never think of joining such a group). Apart from countries such as Britain, Canada and Australia, it comprises of countries who are primarily belonging to the third world. The question of what India is doing in such a group is not really being explained as part of this post (but just as a quick reminder, it makes sense to have a platform for connecting to different countries across the world, especially since India does not have a muscular or very active foreign service).
The question of whether Manmohan Singh should be attending the summit is now a hot potato, primarily due to the politics of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. Sri Lanka has a tamil ethnic minority, with a history of repression and suppression of the rights of the minority. Such a situation can sometimes lead to extreme circumstances, as it helped the creation of an extreme terrorist organization, the LTTE. At its peak, the LTTE was capable of causing huge panic in many parts of Sri Lanka and controlled sections of the country. The LTTE also killed a number of people, with the chief among those being the former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and also the Sri Lankan President Premadasa, and many other leaders and military officials. There was a constant battle going on between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, which peaked in 2009, when the Sri Lankan Government finally defeated the LTTE in a military battle and killed a number of people. For such a battle between 2 bitter enemies, the amount of human rights abuse was immense, since the LTTE would not stop at using human shields, forcibly recruiting people to fight and so on, and the Sri Lankan army would not stop fighting in an area just because there were innocent civilians there. For defeating the LTTE, if there were civilians killed, such as when the increasingly smaller areas being controlled by the LTTE were being shelled, then this would also happen. During this battle, there were plenty of reports of people being killed in cold blood as well. The sad truth is that in such kind of killing of terrorists, it is the rare Government that shies away from committing all sorts of abuses. Even in the Indian case, when the agitation for Khalistan was being fought and finally ended, it did not do because of some sudden change of mind; in fact the terrorists were brutally crushed and terminated.

However, the question is now about the state of Tamils. After such a violent movement, you would expect that the Government will respect the rights of the minority to prevent the seeds of such a movement from rising again. The Government of Sri Lanka claims that it is doing so, but there are many sections of the Tamil minority that claim that this is not happening and their promised rights are not being delivered. The bigger problem is the politics in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. There is a concern for the rights of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, but being cynical, the concern shown by political parties is more for politics, to show that they are concerned for Tamils. This is a game where every party wants to be one up, and so even responsible members of the PM’s cabinet such as Chidambaram has to show a similar concern (after all, in the previous election in his constituency, he won by a very narrow margin, and cannot afford to take such risks again); and if there is a resolution to this effect in the state assembly, who could vote against such a resolution ?
India has so far not followed a truly strategic and muscular foreign policy whereby smaller countries in the neighborhood would remain apprehensive about taking actions against Indian interests, and hence is in a position whereby it has to keep maintaining its relations with them. Till the time that India starts using its weight, we will be in a position whereby we cannot afford to dis-engage with countries where we need to be present. The last time India voted against Sri Lanka in an international resolution, Sri Lanka made its displeasure known to India by re-allocating some oil tanks, and when India does not sell arms, Sri Lanka buys them from Pakistan and China, which are eager to diminish India’s influence. So, in the current situation, India has to remain engaged with Sri Lanka and attend the summit with PM representation. Not attending will not have any positive effect, and in fact, by attending and yet talking about the rights of the minorities, Manmohan Singh can do much more.




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