Finally, the Indian parliament is discussing the Sri Lankan Tamil issue - the alleged killing of tens of thousands of innocent Tamil citizens, indulging in war crimes and for not taking reparative action.
A US-sponsored resolution will come up for voting at the 22nd session of the UN Human Rights Council later this month. And it’s so embarrassing that India, which claims to be the world’s biggest democracy, is still sitting on the fence and wouldn’t say a thing on the resolution till the 11th hour. Today’s parliament discussion is huge relief to our collective conscience.
Last time around, the island nation, despite incredible evidence against it, got away lightly with a perfunctory resolution that was made almost useless by none other than India. This time, according to available information, the resolution will be more specific and will seek to force Sri Lanka to start acting, than indulging in false-promises.
And that will still be a minimum that one would expect from a democratic country.
The most disturbing aspect of the entire development at the UNHRC is India’s continuing dubious role. There has been an overwhelming amount of evidence, that too graphic in details, against Sri Lanka for its alleged war crimes and human rights violations: the bombing and shelling of its own citizens in the final push against the LTTE, executions of people captured from the Tamil areas, and disappearances, tortures and assassinations to quell dissent. It even killed children in cold blood.
The three Channel 4 documentaries, the UN special panel report and its subsequent report last year in which it said sorry for its inability to act during the war; the seminal book by former UN spokesperson in Colombo Gordon Weiss; and the recent report of the Human Rights Watch (HRW), which exposed the country’s state agencies using sexual violence as a tool of torture have unequivocally called Sri Lanka’s bluff and established that things are still awfully wrong in the island.
But the country’s regime continues to repeat its triumphalist absurdity - that all the graphic images, visuals and studies that the world has seen are lies and half truths. They also want to know who the sources are!
It is not just during the war that the Sri Lankan State had indulged in unimaginable excesses. Despite increasing scrutiny and demand for action by international community, the regime continued with its brutality even as late as 2012, as established by the HRW report.
Journalists, rights activists and even visiting foreign nationals are not spared by State terror. None of the cases of torture, disappearances and assassinations have been investigated meaningfully. Instead, the State tries to amplify its threat of terror on dissenters. Most of them have either left the country or are trying to leave. People are also terrified of spies, right wing vigilantes and online hit-men.
The international community has no doubt in Sri Lanka’s culpability and it has made this point unambiguous - that some in Sri Lanka has indulged in war crimes and rights violations and they have to be brought to book. The international community also wants the country to ensure that its ethnic Tamils are safe and equal.
However, as in the case of the first resolution, India is still sitting on the fence. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the Parliament that his government was still keeping its options open. Can it get worse than this? India doesn’t want to take a stand on an issue that the comity of nations have a clear opinion on. The country still wants to play safe even when there is mounting evidence of genocidal killing and war crimes.
This reflects poorly on India as an idea, as a civilisation and as a modern nation that inspires people all over the world. And most importantly, it also shows how ruthless it is when it comes to the aspirations of its own people.
After watching the latest Channel 4 documentary, the CPI leader D Raja and MDMK chief Vaiko had to fight back their tears. One has never seen Raja crying in public - such was the brutality against humanity that one saw in the film. Still, that didn’t prevent people like Salman Khurshid continuing with his standoffish diplomatese as if the emotions of the people of Tamil Nadu are subservient to the bigger scheme of things.
While choosing to “keep its options open” and even saying that unabashedly, the Congress is in fact showing its insensitivity to the people of Tamil Nadu. It is really curious how the party is getting away with this callousness against one of the most important states in India. It is primarily a failure of the DMK, which is an ally of the Congress, as well as the other political parties in the state.
How else can anybody explain the inability of Tamil Nadu, despite being the second most important state in India - socio-economically and politically - to get the Centre reflect its political wish? The state assembly has categorically passed a resolution and the chief minister J Jayalalithaa has been unequivocal that Rajapakse should be tried in the international criminal court as a war criminal and that India should impose economic sanctions. All the other political parties and rights organisations of consequence want India to take a firm stand. A large number of people went to the streets in Chennai and Delhi during the last fortnight.
What India doesn’t seem to realise is that for memories of war crimes to heal, there has to be a systematic closure. And this closure cannot happen without accountability, reconciliation and reparation.
India seems to ignore that instead of a closure, what Sri Lanka is trying is terrorising its own people - particularly the ethnic Tamils - into submission and a forced closure. Every time there is concrete evidence of war crimes or human rights excesses, the regime ridicules them, attribute motives, mobilise its stock of right-wing groups, and unleash more cruelty on dissent.
For instance, following the latest edition of the Channel 4 documentary, the all powerful Defence Ministry has reportedly asked people to inform it about whoever they suspect is giving evidence to the British TV channel. It has also strengthened its efforts to defame the Tamil political party, TNA, for the equally horrendous excesses of LTTE, making a mockery of political inclusion.
Sri Lanka, in the face of the evidence and international opinion, has no other way but to own up and start a process of closure for its own future. But, for that to happen, the repressive regime has to dismantle its nationalistic, majoritarian terror machine. This is where India’s stand, particularly in the light of the extremely vocal stand of Tamil Nadu, is so important
Without accountability, there is no reconciliation and healing.
In his autobiographical Joseph Anton, author Salman Rushdie makes this profound point that memory is the only defense against ruthlessness. He contextualizes it within the Tianenmen Square massacre and the fictitious account of how 3000 workers were killed by a company in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Hundred Years of Solitude.
Nobody knows how many were killed in Tianenmen because the Chinese had so efficiently cleaned up the scene of violence. In Hundred Years of Solitude, there was an equally perfect clean up except that of the memory of a Jose Arcadio Segundo, a key character. But the horrors live on in the memory of people.
The memory of the people who were directly brutalised by the Sri Lankan government and those who shared those memories, thanks to the stupendous work by the international community, wouldn’t die easily. But, they can at least be healed and people can move on with their battered lives.
Sri Lanka, perhaps with guidance from China, tried its best to wipe out the evidence by making the 2009 war, a war without witnesses. But unfortunately, the tracks that it left behind are so open and there are smoking guns everywhere. Perhaps this is a true example how natural justice works.
The island nation and its right-wing majority should realise that a post-conflict closure is inevitable. That is what history tells us. And it cannot be achieved by terror and majoritarianism. After all, you are dealing with 18 per cent of the country’s population, which has a distinctive and extremely rich cultural and linguistic identity and autonomy that are centuries old.
By occupying and militarising their land and culture, and by continuing to lie and unleash terror, will you erase their memories?
As Rushdie said, memory is the only defence against ruthlessness.