One of the most high-profile debates over rising powers’ support for democracy and human rights abroad concerns India’s role in Sri Lanka. The controversies surrounding the two countries’ relations recently reached new heights when India’s prime minister decided to boycott the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), a biennial summit for the states of the Commonwealth of Nations that was hosted by Sri Lanka in November 2013. India’s decision to send its external affairs minister instead of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to this summit sparked a heated debate about New Delhi’s current and future foreign policy trajectory and its willingness to shoulder bigger global responsibilities, such as supporting democracy and human rights at the international level.
Those most critical of the decision argued that Singh’s boycott represented a short-sighted concession to increasingly influential regional parties in India that were encouraging New Delhi to refuse Sri Lanka’s invitation. To these critics, the regional parties’ ability to affect foreign policy at the federal level as they did in the lead-up to the CHOGM endangers the country’s regional and strategic security interests, let alone its ambition to support values such as democracy.
Others, however, saw India’s decision as proof of a larger foreign policy shift the country has undergone in the past several years. According to this view, India’s move in Sri Lanka was not merely about the influence of regional Indian parties on the federal government but also about New Delhi taking on bigger responsibilities in line with India’s status as a rising power.
Whichever claim proves true, the CHOGM episode offers fascinating insight into the state of play of democracy support in one of the most turbulent regions of the world. It suggests that New Delhi may be grappling with a new, more values-based approach to foreign policy, one that will be significantly influenced by India’s regional states.
CHOGM Protests: Indian Opposition to Sri Lanka
The CHOGM episode illustrates the difficulties of navigating foreign policy choices in a highly decentralized democracy with strong regional parties. The southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu saw intense, sustained protests against the idea of India attending the CHOGM in Sri Lanka, making New Delhi’s decision of whether to participate in the meeting a highly controversial domestic issue with clear implications for India’s foreign policy choices.
Those pushing for the boycott objected primarily to Sri Lanka’s history of human rights violations, especially during the country’s nearly three-decades-long civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE is a militant secessionist organization fighting for an independent state for Tamils, an ethnic group found primarily in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. This independent state, referred to as Tamil Eelam, or “homeland,” would be located in northeast Sri Lanka.
While Colombo quelled the LTTE rebellion by military means in 2009, the Sri Lankan government’s victory was accomplished at great cost, both human and material. Thousands of civilians lost their lives in the crossfire and in the excesses committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces. The army’s mass-scale violations attracted global condemnations and led international agencies such as the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) to call for independent investigations into the atrocities.
After denying Colombo the opportunity to host the CHOGM in 2011 due to international concerns over wartime atrocities, Commonwealth leaders agreed to let Sri Lanka host the meeting in 2013 and to take over its chairmanship for the next three years. At a time when Colombo was facing growing international isolation due to its negative postwar trajectory—the Sri Lankan government, led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has so far failed to deliver on the promises of national reconciliation and transitional justice it has made over the years—the CHOGM was seen as an opportunity for the island nation to restore its global standing. As a result, the summit, which is normally considered inconsequential and attracts little international attention, became a media-saturated event in Sri Lanka.
The meeting itself, however, acquired a heightened degree of controversy primarily because of protests in India’s Tamil Nadu. The growing perception in India that the Sri Lankan government does not seriously intend to facilitate reconciliation and address past human rights violations against the country’s Tamil minority created a fertile ground for an upsurge in anti–Sri Lankan sentiments—particularly in Tamil Nadu, long a staunch supporter of the Tamil cause. Sensational media coverage, such as video footage of the Sri Lanka Army’s wanton killing of the twelve-year-old son of a slain LTTE chief in February 2013, triggered further outrage and resentment. Politicians, activists, students, youth groups, media, and other civil society organizations from Tamil Nadu as well as members of the global Tamil diaspora mobilized street protests, organized conferences, and launched high-profile social media campaigns to demand an Indian boycott of the summit. These anti-CHOGM protests generated enough heat to send panic waves through the Sri Lankan leadership—so much so that a nervous Rajapaksa scurried to send emissaries to world capitals to deliver personal invitations to the meeting.
The Tamil Factor
In Tamil Nadu, anti–Sri Lankan protests are nothing new. For the last several years, and particularly since the end of the bloody Sri Lankan civil war, the Indian state has been beset by anti–Sri Lankan demonstrations, many of them demanding that New Delhi support UNHRC resolutions calling for an independent international probe into Sri Lanka’s human rights violations during the war.1 However, these protests never matched the intensity of those seen in the run-up to the CHOGM. The anti-CHOGM demonstrations were also unique in their duration—they continued for several months with unprecedented fervor.
During this period, “Boycott CHOGM” became the battle cry of all political parties in Tamil Nadu. Leading the charge was the state’s chief minister, Jayalalithaa Jayaram, who in fact had been opposed to the LTTE but nevertheless saw an opportunity to stand up for the Sri Lankan Tamil’s cause. In an unprecedented move, the Tamil Nadu state assembly in October 2013 adopted a resolution asking the Indian federal government to boycott the summit entirely. The resolution, introduced by Jayalalithaa herself, received overwhelming support from all political parties, including from Jayalalithaa’s political archrivals in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party—a rare moment of bipartisanship in Tamil Nadu politics.
For the DMK, the main opposition party in Tamil Nadu and long a supporter of the creation of a Tamil state in Sri Lanka, the resolution afforded an opportunity to demonstrate its solidarity with a cause that it has been behind for decades. The DMK formally pulled out of India’s ruling United Progressive Alliance government in March 2013 because New Delhi refused to add amendments to a UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka that would have subjected Colombo to an international investigation into the alleged killing of Tamil civilians in 2009.2 A year before leaving the government, sensing the anti–Sri Lankan mood in Tamil Nadu, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, the head of the DMK, had revived the party’s old policy instrument, the Tamil Eelam Supporters Organization. This body remains one of the strongest organizations supporting the LTTE and the cause of creating a homeland.
Unlike many previous protests, the popular mobilization against the CHOGM summit received widespread support from civil society in Tamil Nadu. Hundreds of organizations, such as trade unions, civic associations, and countless student and youth groups, many of which are normally apolitical, played a crucial role in steering the course of the movement. These organizations astutely used social media outlets such as YouTube and Facebook to generate maximum support for the Tamil cause.3
The Debate in New Delhi
The CHOGM episode also had strong ripple effects in New Delhi. The issue brought about a clear polarization within the cabinet of the ruling United Progressive Alliance.
On the one hand, the Ministry of External Affairs strongly supported the prime minister attending the CHOGM. An internal ministry circular cautioned that by staying away from the summit, India would suffer both strategically and politically and would lose standing in a geopolitically crucial region.4
On the other hand, several powerful ministers hailing from Tamil Nadu voiced their concern about the prime minister’s participation at a time when their state was witnessing widespread protests over the issue.5 The then imminent parliamentary elections seem to have played a role in influencing these ministers’ opinions, pushing them to capitalize on the anti–Sri Lankan sentiments in their electorate. The CHOGM resulted in a revival of sympathy for the suffering of Tamils in Sri Lanka among all political parties in Tamil Nadu, including the pro-center Bharatiya Janata Party, and their collective voice pressured the central government.
For many foreign policy experts, India’s CHOGM boycott was an example of the Indian federal government losing its autonomy over foreign policy decisions.6 The episode further strengthened the perception that New Delhi’s foreign policy is increasingly influenced by powerful regional actors.
For critics of India’s decision, refusing to attend the summit failed to achieve any positive foreign policy goals, neither isolating Colombo nor coercing the incumbent Sri Lankan government into improving its treatment of the Tamil minority. Despite India’s absence, the CHOGM was attended by most major Commonwealth democracies, notably the UK and Australia. Instead, the summit highlighted India’s isolation in the region. Thus, for most analysts, the decision to boycott the CHOGM not only called into question the federal government’s foreign policy autonomy but also raised doubts about its ability to take up human rights and democracy concerns in its foreign relations.
Other experts contend that the CHOGM boycott was driven by more than domestic pressures and that New Delhi retains autonomy in its foreign policy. They point to the fact that if India’s stance on the CHOGM were only about appeasing Tamil Nadu in light of the approaching general election, it would be impossible to explain India’s stout defense of Colombo in 2009, when Sri Lanka was facing severe global condemnation and the Indian government was dealing with sustained protests in Tamil Nadu over the alleged genocide of the Sri Lankan Tamil. India at the time was also in the middle of a general election, with the government in New Delhi dependent on the DMK for its political survival. Yet, much to the discomfort of the DMK, the federal government defended Sri Lanka and its wartime human rights record at the UNHRC.
In a similar and possibly even more vivid display of its autonomy in foreign policy, the Indian federal government changed its traditional stance of noninterference in Sri Lanka by voting in favor of U.S.-sponsored UNHRC resolutions in 2012 and 2013 that called on Colombo to investigate alleged human rights abuses carried out during the civil war.
These experts argue that, contrary to the widely held belief that Indian foreign policy is coming under the heavy shadow of regional realpolitik and losing its autonomous space, the country’s core foreign policy is in fact undergoing a subtle shift toward embracing new values and principles. India’s rising international profile has spurred the realization among political elites that the country can no longer remain a bystander to democracy and human rights issues while it claims a seat at the table with other international powers.
The fact that consolidated democracies have increasingly collaborated with India and recognized the country as a significant international player with the potential to bring about positive changes elsewhere has further accelerated this shift.7 Since 2005, India has repeatedly voted against Iran in the UN over Tehran’s controversial nuclear program, a development that can be seen as the product of this new collaboration with established democracies.
Sri Lanka’s Democracy Deficit
With regard to Sri Lanka, the core issues at stake are democracy and human rights. The island nation suffers from a considerable democracy deficit. Many of Sri Lanka’s problems, past and present, are related to democratic shortcomings and a lack of respect for human rights, particularly minority rights. Postwar triumphalism coupled with a resounding electoral victory in 2010 have led the Rajapaksa government to stall national reconciliation efforts involving genuine power sharing with the aggrieved Tamil population and obstruct any serious reckoning for its wartime human rights abuses.8
As a result of growing international pressure and the UN decision to appoint a committee charged with investigating war crimes, the Sri Lankan government set up a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission to look into alleged wartime abuses and prepare a report outlining potential remedies. But rather than showing genuine commitment to addressing the findings of this commission, a belligerent Colombo has so far delayed the implementation of its recommendations. In addition, even routine demands of the Tamil National Alliance, a coalition of Tamil political parties, on issues of demilitarization and resettlement are frequently dubbed by Sri Lankan government officials as “illegitimate” ambitions of the LTTE.
However, the biggest challenge continues to be the long-promised devolution package that would see Colombo afford increased power and autonomy to provinces, including Tamil-majority areas. Billed the most critical part of a long-term solution to the Tamil issue, the devolution package—first introduced through the Thirteenth Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, which established provincial councils—has been reduced to a game of political football.9 Ultranationalist elements from the majority Sinhala ethnic group consider the proposal a remnant of Indian interference born out of the Indo–Sri Lanka Peace Accord of 1987 in which India pledged to stop aiding LTTE insurgents and send in a peacekeeping force in return for Colombo agreeing to devolve power to the provinces. These nationalists see devolution as a ploy to keep alive Tamil separatist sentiments.
So far, the Indian government has opted for a cautious middle path. While it has repeatedly pushed Sri Lanka to honor its commitments on democracy and minority rights, it has also ensured that bilateral relations do not deteriorate too much. It is precisely for this reason that the Indian prime minister skipped the CHOGM summit but nevertheless sent the foreign minister. Thus, for many analysts, India’s response needs to be viewed beyond the prism of domestic politics and regional security concerns.
Implications for India’s Foreign Policy
Notwithstanding the polarized debate, the CHOGM episode provides some useful barometers to gauge the likelihood of India embracing a more values-based foreign policy.
First, while the CHOGM decision offers no conclusive evidence of a radical shift in India’s international role, it certainly gives a strong hint about the country’s ambition to unshackle its foreign policy from New Delhi’s traditionally noninterventionist stance. This new approach coincides with India’s rising international profile and the growing realization among the country’s elites that New Delhi will have to shoulder greater responsibilities commensurate with its elevated status.
Second, while India’s current position on Sri Lanka (including the UNHRC votes) has to be viewed through the lens of human rights and democracy support, there are other factors driving the government’s policy. Behind India’s new stance is a careful assessment of its available choices. Domestically, a restive Tamil population represents a much bigger challenge than losing influence over the Sri Lankan government to China.
Finally, even as India signals its readiness to take on greater responsibility at the international level, the CHOGM episode demonstrates that this new approach will inevitably face significant pressure on the domestic front. Like in many other democracies, an increasing regionalization of foreign policy has become an inescapable reality in India, and there is little that any coalition government can do to reverse this trend.
Yet, as seen in the recent case of Iran, the federal government nevertheless retains enough room to shape a new Indian foreign policy architecture. The CHOGM episode offers a glimpse into the sort of struggles New Delhi may face in the coming years as it tries to reconcile this new foreign policy approach with its influential domestic constituency.
Niranjan Sahoo is a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
The Carnegie Endowment gratefully acknowledges support from the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the Ford Foundation, and the UK Department for International Development that helped make this publication possible.
1 For a summary of the Anti–Sri Lankan protests, see M. Mayilvagavan, “Why is Tamil Nadu Against Sri Lanka?” Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, October 1, 2012, http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/WhyisTamilNaduAgainstSriLanka_Mayilvaganan_011012.
2 T. S. Subramanian, “Buckling Under Pressure,” Frontline, December 13, 2013, http://www.frontline.in/the-nation/buckling-under-pressure/article5393092.ece.
3 For exhaustive coverage on the role of social media, see J. Jegannathan, “Social Media: Sri Lanka’s New War Zone,” Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies Issue Brief no. 226, June 2013, http://www.ipcs.org/pdf_file/issue/IB226-Jegan-SriLankaSocialMedia.pdf.
4 See a detailed report in “MEA Recommends PM Attend CHOGM,” The Hindu, November 4, 2013, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/mea-recommends-pm-attend-chogm/article5313955.ece.
5 See “Jayanthi Natarajan asks PM to boycott CHOGM,” Spectral Hues (November 4, 2013), http://www.spectralhues.com/national/2013/11/jayanthi-natarajan-asks-pm-boycott-chogm/.
6 For example, see Suhashini Haidar, “The Case of Making it to Colombo,” The Hindu, October 29, 2014, http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-case-for-making-it-to-colombo/article5282664.ece.
7 See Pratap Mehta, “Do New Democracies Support Democracy?” Journal of Democracy, vol. 22, no. 4 (October 2011): 97–109, http://www.journalofdemocracy.org/article/do-new-democracies-support-democracy-reluctant-india, and S. D. Muni, India’s Foreign Policy: the Democracy Dimension (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press India Pvt. Ltd, 2009).
8 Smruti S. Pattanaik, “Why India Must Vote Against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC?” Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, March 30, 2013, http://www.idsa.in/idsastrategiccomments/IndiaagainstSriLankaattheUNHRC_sspatanaik_200312.
9 For a detailed analysis, see M. A. Sumanthiran, “Dangerous Games with Devolution,” The Hindu, June 25, 2013, http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/dangerous-games-with-devolution/article4847181.ece.