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Murder of a Tamil child

by Praful Bidwai, 2 March 2013

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The News (Pakistan), March 02, 2013

India has failed to fashion a coherent, balanced and self-confident response to its turbulent neighbourhood. Leave aside Pakistan, India’s policy towards Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives, Myanmar and Nepal looks confused, indecisive or inept. This has eroded India’s influence and legitimacy in these ‘Gujral Doctrine’ countries, with whom it pledged to “go the extra mile” to improve relations without demanding reciprocity.

Take Sri Lanka. The Sinhala-chauvinist Rajapakse government has belligerently dismissed the Tamil minority’s wholly legitimate demand for regional autonomy – which India has long supported. Still gloating over its 2009 victory in the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the government is riding roughshod over human rights and press freedom.

It stands acutely embarrassed by photographs just released by Britain’s Channel 4, which suggest that LTTE chief V Prabhakaran’s 12-year-old son Balachandran was cold-bloodedly killed by the Lankan military. Two photographs show the boy sitting in a bunker and eating a snack, seemingly in military custody. The third shows his dead body with a bullet-riddled chest.

The disclosure will greatly discomfit the Sri Lankan government at the UN Human Rights Council. Its dismissal of the photographs as “lies, half-truths and speculations” won’t wash. Channel 4 quotes experts who say the three pictures were taken with the same camera.

It admits that it released them to make the Sri Lanka government accountable for civilian deaths in the war’s final weeks. Three years after parroting “zero civilian casualties”, the government now accepts that some civilians died, but claims they mostly died in crossfire. The killings’ circumstances are disputed. But there’s no dispute that killing civilians is impermissible and illegal.

Independent investigations have established that thousands, probably well over 10,000, civilians were brutally killed. The killings sharply increased after September 2008, when the UN was forced to quit the war zone and the Sri Lankan military jettisoned all rules of engagement to target civilians. This is wholly impermissible, and must be unequivocally condemned and punished.

Balachandran’s seemingly cold-blooded custodial murder is all the more revolting because he was a juvenile. It should be easy for the government to identify the chain of command involved in keeping the boy in a sandbagged bunker and killing him, so that the culprits are given exemplary punishment. That was one objective of Sri Lanka’s “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission”, set up at the HRC’s goading in 2012.

On logical as well as ethical grounds, India should have taken an unambiguous stand on civilian casualties and Balachandran’s killing. India was in no small measure responsible for Rajapakse’s success in militarily annihilating the LTTE. The Fourth Eelam War beginning mid-2006 couldn’t have been won without the Indian Navy’s logistical support.

It was morally obligatory for India to have ensured Sri Lanka’s compliance with non-combatant immunity and the Geneva Conventions. But India didn’t deliver on this. It now says the Balachandran photographs’ “authenticity” must be established first. This isn’t enough. India must uphold, and be seen to uphold, principles of justice in the conduct of war and take an uncompromising stand on civilian immunity.

The HRC is a good forum for this. Instead of taking an independent position there, and also using the bilateral route, India is planning to vote against Sri Lanka with the United States in a “country-specific” resolution – something it has long opposed. Tailing the US doesn’t speak of foreign policy autonomy.

India’s Sri Lanka policy awkwardly attempts to balance contradictory pressures: the domestic ethnic-Tamil push for a tough stand vis-à-vis Colombo, anxiety to neutralise growing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka fuelled by aid, military supplies and assistance towards building the Hambantota port, and leveraging India’s status as Sri Lanka’s biggest investor and trading partner.

India-Lanka relations have a complicated, fractious past. In the early 1980s, India armed and trained the LTTE, a murderous force which committed countless atrocities. India soon turned against the Tigers and sent the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka in 1987. The IPKF failed to disarm the LTTE and beat an ignominious retreat. Meanwhile, the devolution agenda remained unfulfilled, and Sinhala chauvinists came to power. India did little to temper their malign influence.

Consider Bangladesh. India’s relations with it have improved over four years, with reduced trade barriers, better transit facilities, a $1 billion line of credit, and more infrastructure investment. But there isn’t a breakthrough which would make the improvement irreversible.

India lost an invaluable opportunity to seal two promised agreements: on sharing the waters of the Teesta, and on swapping 162 enclaves in each other’s territories. Manmohan Singh caved in to the temperamental Mamata Banerjee, who vetoed the Teesta agreement for petty reasons. By contrast, Bangladesh has handed over more than 20 northeastern militants and cracked down on their camps.

Nobody expects India to support the great popular mobilisation at Shahbag Square to demand stiff punishment to Jamaat-e-Islami leaders for their 1971 war crimes. But the least India can do is deliver on its pledges and not propose new projects on shared rivers in India’s northeast without prior consultation with Dhaka.

Maldives is another site of Indian diplomacy’s ineptitude. In 1988, India intervened militarily to prevent a coup against President Abdul Gayoom. Last year, New Delhi sided with Indian construction company GMR, which faced a cancellation of its contract to build an airport. India threatened Maldives, but the threat didn’t work.

Earlier, India had hastily described the ouster of President Nasheed by Mohammed Waheed as legitimate, ignoring its coercive nature. India lost precious time in correcting course. Meanwhile, the US and China stepped into the vacuum. The US plans to build a military base in the Maldives, and China is pouring aid to gain leverage.

Last fortnight, India again got embroiled in the Maldives’ politics by giving shelter to Nasheed against a court’s arrest warrant. The crisis was temporarily resolved through a truce brokered by a diplomatic team especially sent from Delhi. But it’s not clear if India can use its influence to ensure free and fair elections in September, and generally to promote peace and normalcy in the country.

In Myanmar, India first rightly backed pro-democracy leader and long-standing friend Aung San Suu Kyi, but switched over to the ruling junta to counter growing Chinese influence over it. The regime recently opened up Myanmar’s economy and political process. In response, many countries relaxed sanctions.

Upon entering parliament, Suu Kyi visited Europe and the US before coming to India. When she came, she expressed her “disappointment with India”. Many countries have been quick to bid for Myanmar’s ample natural resources since it opened up. India, its fourth biggest trade partner, is not even number 10 in the investors’ list. India still lacks a coherent Myanmar policy.

In Nepal, India helped reach a historic agreement between the Maoists and mainstream parties, which led to the deposing of the monarchy and free elections. But India quickly lost much of the goodwill thus earned by taking partisan political positions, while doing little to aid the formation of a broadly acceptable government or the writing of a constitution. India is losing credibility and influence in Nepal.

India’s regional policy has fallen between the stools of pragmatism and principle. It’s time India revisited and rectified its approach.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi.

Email: prafulbidwai1 at


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