With regard to the collapse of relations with India in the eighties, the reasons are clear enough. If anyone doubted the corrosive effect of President Jayewardene’s Cold War adventurism, the Annexe to the Indo-Lankan Accord makes crystal clear what India feared. At the time the Liberal Party regretted the fact that we should have acknowledged Indian supremacy over our foreign relations, but we also said that, without spelling this out, we should always have acted on the assumption that we could not afford to alienate India. We have also always pointed out that, for its part, when it did not feel threatened, India had usually displayed towards Sri Lanka a generosity and understanding that were not always a feature of its relations with its other neighbours.
Why then have we found India ranged against us at the UN Human Rights Council, in 2012 as well as in 2013? How has it happened that, whereas in 2012 there was no certainty until towards the very end as to how India would vote, in 2013 India was under pressure to make the resolution brought by the US even more stringent?
All this happened despite the fact that, in February 2012, India assured us that she would vote in our favour. Unfortunately, contrary to her request that this be kept confidential, this commitment was promptly trumpeted aloud. There is some uncertainty now about who actually let the cat out of the bag. When I told Mahinda Samarasinghe that he had made a mistake in announcing the fact, which I thought was so that he could win brownie points, in the ongoing battle between him and the Minister of External Affairs, he assured me that he had not been responsible. This is not unlikely, given the massive numbers the Ministry had decided to send to Geneva, all of them generals convinced that they knew best how to conduct foreign policy.
Sadly, there has been no inquiry into what actually happened, and why we made such an expensive mess of things in 2012. Instead our ambassador, who was doing an excellent job in repairing relations with the Indians as well as Third World countries alienated by her predecessor, was dismissed, and the same dispensation as brought us low in 2012 continues to run things at the Ministry.
Predictably the announcement that India would support us led to massive agitation in Tamilnadu. Whereas without such an announcement the Indian Foreign Policy establishment could have worked discreetly to support us, whilst also advising us on the way forward, as had happened in 2009, they were faced with a major crisis. This became worse when our High Commissioner in Delhi was accused of having insulted Tamilnadu politicians.
I could not imagine that a professional diplomat could have made such a mistake, and I have since been assured that he was misquoted. But the damage had been done, and he was then quoted as having virtually apologized in a clarification, which allowed the Tamilnadu politicians to agitate even more forcefully. Meanwhile we failed to respond forcefully to the latest Channel 4 diatribe against us, which allowed even more emotion to be whipped up in India.
It was not surprising then that India finally announced that it would vote against us. But with so many generals still performing on behalf of Sri Lanka in Geneva, we could not even discuss a helpful strategy with the Indian mission in Geneva that would have ensured a less obnoxious resolution.
Of course there are those who argue that India was determined anyway to do us down, and the assurance given in February was not serious. I do not think that is the way Indian diplomacy works, though it is conceivable that the positive approach towards Sri Lanka which generally prevails in the Ministry was under attack in other quarters.
Assuming that to be the case, and that other imperatives were as important in changing the Indian stance as the agitation in Tamilnadu, we should have studied the situation and worked out how to overcome it. But it is perhaps understandable that we have done nothing of the sort, for had we done so, we would have found that those who should be thinking about such matters are themselves the problem, and they would scarcely like to admit this.
In the first place, we must understand that India must face great difficulties in dealing with Sri Lanka simply because they have no idea with whom they have to deal. More than once they have spoken to the President, and expressed themselves satisfied with the understandings that were reached, only to find that those understandings were repudiated. This has not been done by the Minister of External Affairs, but he has not corrected the record, and thus the impression is created of a lack of concern about Indian sensitivities.
What is depressing about this is that a little frank discussion would allow us readily to achieve consensus that would overcome the objections of extremists in both countries. Though obviously the political compulsions of Tamilnadu are more worrying to the Indian government than the emotions of those elements in the Sri Lankan government that disagree with the commitments the President has made, India understands the need to work tactfully in a coalition government.
We could therefore, while affirming the principle of Provincial Councils, bring in the very minor changes necessary to assuage fears on either side, about possible separatism and about possible domination by the Centre. We could also, studying both the Indian and the South African models, strengthen local government, which would make clear our commitment to empowering people, and allowing them command of their own lives, without perpetuating dependency upon central or regional politicians.
This requires some simple discussion, but it must be frank and productive. But with no credibility or follow up capacity apparent in those in charge of our foreign policy, such discussions are unlikely.