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Revealing Remarks

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Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Ashok K. Kantha’s address to mark his country’s 65th independence anniversary was starkly at odds with international opinion, disconnected from political developments at home, and elided the enduring humanitarian and ethnopolitical crises in Sri Lanka.

Amid mounting evidence of war time atrocities by Sri Lankan forces – most recently highlighted by Indian media - the international community is taking an increasingly tough stance on Sri Lanka’s refusal to countenance accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is also increasingly critical of Sri Lanka’s refusal to seek a political solution to Tamil grievances, and its militarised rule in the Tamil areas.

Yet, even as the United States, Britain and other liberal democracies are increasing pressure on Colombo over these issues, Mr. Kantha instead opted to commend Sri Lanka for its “commitment to heal wounds” and its “progress towards reconciliation and development.” While the international community is agreed that command responsibility for the systematic mass killings of Tamil civilians goes to the very top of the Sri Lankan state, Mr. Kantha praised the “vision and leadership that resulted in an end to armed conflict.”

He even claimed Sri Lanka was “poised” to reap a peace dividend, even though the Northeast, where his government has been attempting – strikingly unsuccessfully – to launch reconstruction programs, is marked by insecurity, fear and widespread suffering. Mr. Kantha made much of India’s financial assistance and development plans for the Northeast, but these remain moribund even two years after the ‘peace’ he spoke of supposedly began. For example, India’s project, pledged last November, to build 50,000 homes for the war displaced has stalled amid Colombo’s barely disguised interference. Hundreds of thousands remain homeless, many living in shacks in the jungle, while the military continues to occupy their homes.

Yet Mr. Kantha also claimed “India is seeking to play a role commensurate with her size, potential, civilisational heritage and destiny.” In fact, despite the international community’s stated expectations that the South Asian heavyweight take a lead role in ensuring Sri Lanka delivers on accountability, a political solution and the humanitarian crisis in Tamil areas, India has been singularly unable to influence Colombo. That Mr. Kantha’s speech glossed over these issues only underscored this.

Ironically, it is within India that these issues have been taken up most vocally in recent weeks. Both of India’s main opposition parties – the BJP and CPI(M) – have unequivocally backed an international investigation into Sri Lanka’s mass killings. The polity in Tamil Nadu has taken a unified and active position on the same and the government there has repeatedly called on Delhi to impose sanctions. From the grassroots to the chief minister’s office, there is overwhelming support for decisive action, and it is growing in other parts of the country. Indeed, few in India outside the government would support Mr. Kantha’s stated positions on Sri Lanka.

India’s strategy of offering Sri Lanka seemingly unending largess and cajoling Colombo to change was never going to work. Delhi has justified its light touch approach on a fear of encouraging China’s influence – a rationale offered recently by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to the derision of the opposition BJP. And it has demonstrably not worked (Sri Lanka has openly allied itself with China – though whether Beijing will stand by Colombo against the rest of the international community very much remains to be seen). In terms of geopolitics, development of the Northeast, or political change in Sri Lanka, rarely has an aspiring great power’s efforts been thwarted so comprehensively. As such, Mr. Kantha’s independence anniversary speech ultimately revealed more about India than Sri Lanka.

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