Narendra Modi and Sri Lanka


After the Indian state legislature elections in the states of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and the Union Territory of Delhi, it seems very likely that Narendra Modi, the controversial BJP chief minister of Gujarat will be the next prime minister of India. The Congress Party was routed in all four states and even in Delhi, the BJP has got the highest number of seats, but failed to get a clear majority because of a new party the ‘Aam Aadmi’ which has just come on the scene.

What are the implications for Sri Lanka if Narendra Modi becomes prime minister of India? In recent times, Sri Lanka has not had any serious bilateral issues with the Indian central government except for the ever present nuisance of poaching in the Palk Straits. Sri Lanka’s problem with India has mainly been in multilateral fora. India has voted against SL in the UN Human Rights Council and the Indian PM has not attended the Commonwealth Summit in Colombo.

Under Modi, there is a very strong possibility of a radical change in India’s behaviour in multilateral fora. Until recently, the Indian stance was that they would not vote in any country-specific resolutions in the UNHRC but they changed this policy and voted against Sri Lanka due to pressure from Tamil Nadu. The chances are that a Modi-led Indian government may revert to the earlier position of not voting for country specific resolutions in any international fora.  Sri Lanka has in recent times been under siege by the USA in particular and the Western nations in general. Everything that Sri Lanka has experienced in recent times at the hands of the West, Narendra Modi too has experienced personally, and with far greater intensity. The Congress Party leaders were the darlings of the West, but the USA has declared Modi an enemy even before he has been elected to power.

It may not be possible for a Modi government to play along with the West in multilateral fora because of the imminent danger of the same mechanisms being used against India. For example, if India votes in favour of a UNHRC ‘Commission of Inquiry’ against Sri Lanka, there is the danger that the same mechanism will be used against India. It should be noted that despite all the allegations made by the USA against SL, no key Sri Lankan government official has been denied a US visa. In contrast, Narendra Modi was denied a US visa in 2005 for alleged human rights violations. The USA may be getting resolutions passed against Sri Lanka in the UNHRC, but they have not passed resolutions against the Rajapaksa government in the US Congress. But just three weeks ago, on 18 November 2013, a group of Congressmen representing both the Republican and Democratic parties presented in the US House of Representatives, a resolution against Modi – one of the aims of this resolution being to appeal to the Indian voters, not to elect him PM in 2014.

 (Of course what would have emboldened the American political establishment to make such a move is a petition against Modi signed by 65 members from both houses of the Indian parliament which was sent to US President Barak Obama in July this year calling on him among other things not to give Modi a US visa. When so many Indian parliamentarians invite the US to interfere in Indian politics, who are the Americans to refuse?)


The ‘Yankee Raj’

This US House of Representatives motion bearing No: 417 against Modi and the BJP was presented to Congress on 18 Nov. by Congressman Joe Pitts, a Republican.  Several other Republican Congressmen Steve Chabot, James Sensenbrenner, Frank Wolf,  Mark Meadows, Tim Huelskamp  co-sponsored the resolution. Congressmen Maurice Ellison, John Conyers, Jim McGovern, Albio Sires, Jim Moran, John Lewis, Raul Grijalva, Jared Polis and Congresswoman Betty McCollum who also co-sponsored this resolution were all Democrats. This shows that both political parties in the USA were of one mind with regard to Narendra Modi in particular and the BJP in general. This resolution which was titled "On the need to protect the rights and freedoms of religious minorities in India" made a string of allegations against the Hindu nationalist movement and Narendra Modi alleging that they had advanced a ‘divisive and violent agenda’ that has harmed the social fabric of India.

Among the specific charges against the Hindu nationalists were the destruction of the 16th-century Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, on 6 December 1992, the communal violence against Muslims in Gujarat, after 58 Hindus were burnt alive in a train coach fire on February 27, 2002 which left an estimated 2,000 dead and 100,000 displaced, the victimisation of Christians in Gujarat, and the destruction of churches. The US held Narendra Modi personally responsible for these acts while alleging that he has acted against whistleblowers while making no effort to prosecute those responsible for the anti-Muslim violence. They even went so far as to say that where justice has been delivered in Gujarat, it has been in spite of the state government, not because of it.

The resolution further observed that violence broke out between Christians and Hindus in the eastern state of Odisha in December 2007, with rioting and looting of shops and churches and more than 1,000 people displaced from their homes. The August 2008 murder of a prominent Hindu leader of Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Odisha sparked a violent campaign against Christians, although Maoist extremists claimed responsibility for the assassination -  40 people were killed, 134 were injured, churches and homes were destroyed, and more than 10,000 people fled the state and there was no immediate police or state government reaction to the Odisha violence. Religious leaders and aid agencies were denied access to provide care for the victims. The Americans alleged that the Odisha state police documented an estimated 3,500 complaints related to the 2007 to 2008 violence, but only 827 cases were brought to trial and that the investigative and court structures the Government of India created in response to the communal violence in Gujarat and Odisha failed to end intimidation, harassment, and violence against religious minorities. The US also alleged that on August 27, 2013, communal violence erupted in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh with more than 60 Muslims and Hindus killed, and 50,000 people displaced.

The US resolution also referred to the anti-conversion laws that some Indian states had promulgated and alleged that though these laws purport to ban ‘forced conversions’ they are actually are used to prevent certain religious groups from peacefully persuading others to change their religion and that states with these laws have a higher incidence of intimidation, harassment and violence against religious minorities, particularly Christians, than states that do not.

Having made those allegations, the US House of Representatives resolution calls for religious freedom and related human rights to be included in the United States-India Strategic Dialogue, and for these issues to be raised directly with the Indian Government. The resolution also commended the United States Government for denying Modi a United States visa back in 2005 on the grounds of religious freedom violations.

The resolution further calls on Indian states including Gujarat with anti-conversion laws to repeal such legislation and urges the Government of India to empower the National Commission on Minorities with enforcement mechanisms, such as the ability to conduct trials and hear appeals. The US also wants India to establish an impartial body of interfaith religious leaders, human rights advocates, legal experts and government officials to discuss and recommend actions to promote religious tolerance and understanding. The last sentence of the resolution was the worst of all. It called on Indian political parties and religious organizations to publicly oppose ‘the exploitation of religious differences’ and denounce harassment and violence against religious minorities, especially in the run-up to India’s general elections in 2014. This was a barely veiled request to the Indian public to vote against the BJP at next year’s elections.

 This resolution was presented to the US Congress in a situation where Modi had already been declared the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.  The US probably thought the odds were balanced and that with a little help from them, the Congress party could be brought back to power. But after last week’s rout of the Congress Party, we can see hasty attempts being made by the US to backtrack on the Modi issue. Condoleeza Rice who was Secretary of State under George Bush has already said that they are willing to ‘let bygones be bygones’ and work with Modi if he becomes prime minister. The above mentioned resolution that was presented to Congress on 18 November will also probably be quietly ditched. But this does not mean that the US will be comfortable with the BJP.


Danger of unilateral action under Modi


Be that as it may, what we see from this resolution is that after the Indian government adopted the misguided policy of voting with the USA in the UN Human Rights Council instructing the Sri Lankan government to do this or that, the chickens have to roost for the Indians as well. If Narendra Modi becomes prime minister, his government will be under the scrutiny of the Western powers to a much greater extent than Sri Lanka. Due to internal divisions, it is much easier for the West to effect regime change in India than in SL and that factor will naturally encourage greater Western interference in India. While the Americans were hounding Narendra Modi on the one hand, they were cultivating other chief ministers like Jeyalalitha Jeyaram on whom former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even made a courtesy call.  Due to these reasons an Indian government under Modi will have a strong incentive to revert to the former Indian policy of refusing to support any country-specific resolutions and they may abstain from voting against Sri Lanka in the UNHRC.

 But then, even a Modi led government will invariably be a coalition formed with support from Tamil Nadu. As such, the probability is that Indian policy towards Sri Lanka will not differ substantially. The danger is that in a situation where the next Indian central government is unable to placate Tamil Nadu by voting against Sri Lanka in multilateral for a, they may be compelled to keep Tamil Nadu happy  by taking unilateral action against Sri Lanka. Jeyalalitha’s AIADMK has already announced that they will be going it alone at the 2014 Lok Sabha elections which means that any alliance formed will be after the election - on her terms. Sri Lanka has to watch out for 2014 as the next Indian central government may well be even more dependent on Tamil Nadu than the present one.

 There is even the danger that the next government in Delhi will try to make a virtue of a necessity and start interfering in Sri Lankan affairs as a matter of central government policy the way both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi did. In the oft reproduced newspaper article penned by J.R.Jayawardene on D.S.Senanayake’s foreign policy many decades ago, we see that DS retained the British military bases in Ceylon as a bulwark against India. Thus India has been perceived as a threat to Sri Lanka from the time we gained independence. China in contrast, has been a steady friend to this country from the time of D.S.Senanayke. China has helped all Sri Lankan governments including Presidents  J.R.Jayewardene and Mahinda Rajapaksa. With Modi set to become India’s leader, Sri Lanka-China relations will become even more important not just to Sri Lanka but to China as well. Without China’s foothold in Sri Lanka, China’s shipping lanes across the Indian Ocean will be left exposed to rival powers – a situation which she simply cannot afford. So at the bilateral level, a Modi prime ministership may result in much greater tensions between India and Sri Lanka.


A potential Putin going waste

The fact that Modi and the BJP will not get a clear majority to rule and that he too will be reduced to the level of a saffron coloured clone of the Congress Party at best, is a tragedy for India. What India needs more than ever now is a strongman - a Vladamir Putin - someone who can stop the fissiparous tendencies that are slowly but surely destroying India and spreading that instability outside its borders as well. Modi is an ideologically driven leader believing in a united India, and up to now, he has not been afraid to call a spade a spade. He has not been up to now, the usual ‘brownnose-anybody-for-votes’ type of politician and that is what accounts for his present popularity and ‘strongman’ image. He, more than any other leader in India, has the personal attributes to be the Putin-like figure that India needs so badly.

The BJP has been in power before but that was under Atal Behari Vajpayee.  Despite his roots in the Hindu nationalist movement, Vajpayee in office was no different to the run of the mill Indian politician. Modi is quite clearly made of different stuff but even he will not be able to go against realpolitik and the need to forge alliances which means that even under his stewardship, the fissiparous tendencies that are tearing India apart will not only continue but perhaps even exacerbate.  

The Indian central government has been headlong retreat for the past three decades, giving way to the rise of states. The 2010 M.M. Punchhi Commission on Centre-State Relations was willing to concede to the states virtually every demand for greater autonomy that they made.  They were willing to restrict the discretionary powers of the Governors of the States in appointing and dismissing chief ministers and informing the central government that a state of emergency has arisen in the state. They were willing to allow the states to decide on who would be their governor.  The Punchchi Commission also recommended that when a situation of public disorder justifies central government intervention in a state, that the state be asked before intervening. Moreover they recommended that the imposition of president’s rule on a state should be subject to judicial review even if the order has been approved in both houses of parliament. In the view of the Punchchi Commission, the case for centralization does not exist anymore.

The Punchchi Commission was appointed to re-examine centre-state relations at the request of (among others) the Tamil separatist DMK. These very same Tamil separatist forces will be the deciding factor in a future Modi led government. Modi was the one man in the Indian political firmament who had the correct attitude to reverse the rot. But he too will be a captive of the very forces responsible for the rot that is destroying India. Modi got here with straight talk, and a ‘head on’ attitude to India’s problems. But now due to the diktat of realpolitik, he too will be swallowing his words and sidling along sideways like everybody else in the game. What Modi is as chief minister, he will not be as prime minister. He may have been the Putin of Gujarat, but he will not be the Putin of India.


Nick Clegg’s indemnity suggestion

When the British House of Commons met at 2.30pm on Monday last week, business started off with tributes to the late Nelson Mandela. The first to speak was Prime Minister David Cameron, followed by the Leader of the Opposition Edward Miliband and the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (leader of the Liberal Democrats) speaking next.  In his speech on Mandela, Clegg said:

"How could people who had spent so long divided in conflict, and had either perpetrated or suffered so much abuse, find it within themselves to forgive, to move on, and to build something together? Well, Mandela could and did,..."

 "When Nelson Mandela took his first steps to freedom, he made no call for vengeance, only forgiveness...That is why I hope, in communities where people are still struggling to replace violence and conflict with peace and stability, that the principles of forgiveness and reconciliation that Mandela embodied are followed by others too. Recently, for example, the House debated the alleged human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. Surely there could be no better way for that country to heal its wounds and bring peace and unity to all its people than to follow Mandela’s example and emulate South Africa’s truth and reconciliation process."

 Nick Clegg’s suggestion should be carefully scrutinized by Sri Lanka. The suggestion that Sri Lanka should adopt Mandela’s truth and reconciliation process is made with the full knowledge that it was in essence an indemnity law under a different name. What it did was to give both sides a way to end all civil and criminal liability for acts of violence committed during the decades of conflict. The Conservative led British government has quite clearly understood that they had shot themselves in the foot by calling for an international war crimes inquiry against Sri Lanka and now they are trying to backtrack by giving Sri Lanka a way out which would be of benefit to Britain as well. David Cameron made no mention of Sri Lanka in his speech on Mandela, but even he was beating the indemnity law drum. Cameron said of Mandela:

"Nearly three decades in prison could so easily have left him bitter. On his release, he could have meted out vengeance on those who had done him so much wrong. Perhaps the most remarkable chapter of Mandela’s story is how he took the opposite path. In victory, he chose magnanimity. Indeed, with characteristic generosity, he invited his former jailer to his presidential inauguration...The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to break the spiral of recrimination and violence."

 The Conservative led government appears to have realized that by the ill-advised posturing of their prime minister in Sri Lanka, they had hobbled one of the most important political platforms of their government – immigration control - and they seem to be making overtures to the Sri Lankan government to come to a mutually agreeable solution. Since the British have now said that they will back a South African style truth and reconciliation process, the Sri Lankan government should take up the offer.

 It is not difficult to see why the British are having second thoughts about an international war crimes inquiry against Sri Lanka. The UK Border Agency which processes applications for asylum from Sri Lankan applicants, has a Country of Origin Information Service which puts out periodic bulletins updating information for the use of their staff. The latest such bulletin put out in December last year is a 149 page document which has assessed among other things allegations that deported Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers were being arrested and tortured in Sri Lanka.

 The first part of this report reproduces verbatim extracts from various reports filed by international NGOs like Human Rights Watch, Freedom from Torture and Tamils Against Genocide alleging with case histories and names, that Tamil deportees are being arrested and tortured in Sri Lanka. The final part of the document is a letter from the United Kingdom High Commission in Colombo addressed to the UK Border Agency stating in bland language that nothing of the sort alleged by the international NGOs is actually taking place in Sri Lanka! The UK High Commission in Colombo had investigated one by one the cases mentioned by HRW and other organizations and found that there was no truth whatsoever in the allegations they made.  

This makes it plain that the allegations of widespread human rights abuses during the last phases of the war by the Sri Lankan armed forces, made by the same or similar international NGOs, will have the same level of veracity. The British conservative government seems to have realized that their immigration policy need not be hobbled for no valid reason which is why they have offered this olive branch to the Sri Lankan government so that Sri Lanka can bring in an indemnity law in the form of a South African style truth and reconciliation commission and they (the Brits) can continue to deport bogus asylum applicants back to Sri Lanka.

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