As the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo is fast approaching, questions are being raised in India, especially in Tamil Nadu, about the rationale of Indian participation. Some political groupings argue that Indian participation would provide legitimacy to the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, which as Navi Pillai, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has pointed out, is leading the country “in an increasingly authoritarian direction.” The High Commissioner has expressed alarm over the curtailment and denial of personal freedoms and human rights, pervasive impunity and the failure of rule of law. She has highlighted the impeachment and dismissal of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. This unlawful act is a violation of the Commonwealth Latimer House principles. Navi Pillai referred to the findings of the Commonwealth Observer Team which mentioned that in recent provincial council elections the voters exercised their franchise “in the context of a compromised election environment” and the huge military presence was a “significant obstacle to a credible electoral process.” It should also be pointed out that Sri Lanka has become one of the most unsafe nations for media personnel, with a record killing of independent journalists. To add insult to injury, Sri Lanka is to assume the Commonwealth Chair Person in Office position for the next two years. It would be seen as condoning the violation of basic principles of the Commonwealth, which seeks to uphold human rights, equality before law and democracy as core principles.
The post-war history of the Commonwealth of Nations is an excellent illustration of the benign transformation of international relations. From the early days, when it was an exclusive grouping of Britain and its imperialist possessions, it has transformed itself into a voluntary organisation of independent countries, stretching across all continents and comprising people belonging to all ethnic groups. Experts are of the view that despite apparent divisions of ethnicity, religion, geography, size and culture, the organisation remains cohesive because of historical links with Britain and the legal, administrative and democratic structures that they have inherited.
India has taken a consistent stand on upholding democratic values, equality before law and promotion of human rights within the Commonwealth. India played a leading role in opposing the apartheid regime in South Africa and getting it expelled from the Commonwealth. During the Rajiv Gandhi years, India got the racist Rambuka Government of Fiji expelled for subversion of democratic values. When Islamabad was committing genocide in East Pakistan, not only the Government of India but also the opposition parties were at the forefront pleading for international humanitarian intervention. When this did not take place and events led to Indian military intervention and liberation of Bangladesh, the whole country extended solid support to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, after the communal holocaust in Colombo in July 1983, Indian diplomacy consisted of extending support to the Tamil cause by internationalising the dispute to the advantage of the Tamils. In 1987, India was determined to prevent a military solution; hence the dropping of food in Jaffna by the IAF planes, which set in motion a series of events that led to the conclusion of the India-Sri Lanka Accord. The 13th amendment to the Constitution was enacted which led to the establishment of provincial councils.
While discussing the pros and cons of Indian participation in CHOGM, it is essential to keep in mind the changing nature of the Sri Lankan political system. Under sustained Indian and international pressure, provincial council elections were held recently for the northern provincial council, in which the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won a resounding victory. The massive endorsement of the TNA can be interpreted as follows. It represents a rejection of the government stand that the Tamils can be won over by rapid economic development. The Tamils have convincingly proved that man does not live by bread alone, what is required is sharing of power among various ethnic groups and respect and tolerance of cultural diversity. The highly respected Chief Minster Wigneswaran represents a ray of hope. Given statesmanship on the part of Colombo, the new political experiment could succeed. It will lead to the ushering of a new political order, where the Tamils can be Tamils while being loyal Sri Lankan citizens.
The immediate objective of India’s Sri Lanka policy should be to strengthen the TNA Government and its quest for justice and equality. If India resolves to boycott the CHOGM, it would be playing into the hands of the fanatical sections among the Tamil diaspora, who want to establish a separate state through violent means. On the contrary, in Colombo, India, along with other countries, should exert pressure on Mahinda Rajapaksa to bring about ethnic reconciliation by devolving powers and also hasten the institution of judicial enquiry so that those guilty of human rights violations are brought to book expeditiously.