India's Cynical Sri Lanka Vote

March 26, 2012

India’s foreign policy is acombination of realpolitik and old-school “nonaligned” mumbo-jumbo that made little sense even when it was more relevant during the Cold War. In any case, they definitely don’t want to talk about country-specific human rights issues (lest Kashmir might get more play). Yet, they joined the majority to support a human rights resolution on Sri Lanka.

India has refused to condemn Syria’s brutal crackdown on its own citizens. There, it was pure cynicism on the part of South Block (India’s Ministry of External Affairs) knowing that India won’t take a hit for not condemning Syria’s war against its people.

For Sri Lanka, it’s infinitely more complicated.

Because of India’s federal system (similar in many ways to the US), regional politics play an outsize role in India’s foreign policy with respect to Sri Lanka. The southern state of Tamil Nadu, with 72 million people, often has come to the aid of their brethren in Sri Lanka. That wouldn’t matter except that national elections are coming up soon and one of the government’s main coalition partners just happens to be a Tamil Nadu-based party known for taking a very strong pro-Sri Lanka Tamil line. As India’s top English-language newspaper (based in the Tamil Nadu capital of Chennai) states in its article on the vote:

India initially showed reluctance to vote on a nation-specific resolution but changed its stand after political parties in Tamil Nadu exerted pressure on the United Progressive Alliance government to go with the resolution. The DMK, in particular, threatened to pull out its Ministers from the UPA government on the issue.

So, although it’s clear that India’s position on the resolution helped sway others to also vote in favor of the UN resolution (and that’s a good thing), it doesn’t hurt to look cynically at what India did here and put it down to domestic politics. Next time a resolution like this comes up on a country, they should take a principled stand on behalf of human rights and stop playing games with other people’s struggles.

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