India is caught in the quintessential indecisiveness of the fictional, Danish, Prince Hamlet, created by Shakespeare, who agonizes over “to be or not to be”, loosely applied here as “to go or not to go”, to the forthcoming Commonwealth meet in Sri Lanka.
Apparently, at issue is only how to deal with the outraged Tamil sentiment, should the government decide to participate, since this could undercut support for the Congress, amongst Tamil Nadu Members of Parliament, post the 2014 elections.
That the Sri Lankan army butchered their Tamils, both those heavily armed and the unarmed innocent, is clear. However, this is really no different from what is happening in Syria and what occurs in every place, where citizens decide to take up arms against the State.
The fundamental basis of the State, is its monopoly over violence. The manner in which violence is used, reflects the character of the State. In developed democracies, State violence is only permitted if aligned to the principles of the Rule of Law. For example, the State’s right to take away a citizens rights, liberty or life, is constrained by the legal requirement to follow the process of law. In pure forms of autocracy and monarchy, it is the ruler who has the power over life, death and taxes. Less developed democracies, like ours, fall somewhere in between. We allow the police and army to give the go-by to the rule of law, in areas of extreme civil unrest as in the North East in the 1970s to 1980s and Punjab, in the 1980s. Some, like Kashmir and the Maoist tribal belt in Eastern India continue to be endemic areas of conflict.
We are being hypocritical, if we are willing to suppress violent, domestic unrest, with a strong hand, but pretend to be squeamish about the manner in which Sri Lanka dealt with the Tamils.
No one can condone the killing of civilians by the State anywhere, but it does happen in poorly governed States. Once the personal, social and economic cost of taking up arms is lower for a citizen, than the benefits of remaining pliant to an oppressive regime, it becomes “rational” to revolt. Civilian deaths are collateral damage for the ensuing war to impose the supremacy of the State.
Mahatma Gandhi of course had the perfect, albeit difficult, strategy for citizens to deal with coercive regimes. Negotiate with the regime to make life incrementally better for citizens. Draw red lines, beyond which you will not be pushed. Oppose the regime thereafter, not by force, but through “Satyagraha” (passive resistance). By behaving thus, citizens retain the moral high ground. This moral high ground was not maintained by citizens in Sri Lanka, as it was not in Punjab and has not been in Syria, Kashmir and Maoist East India. By losing the moral high ground, citizens descend to the level of warriors and the rule of war replaces the rule of law.
Tamil Indians understandably feel compelled to highlight the ruthlessness of the conflict. But is it not better to focus on what India can do next, to mainstream the Sri Lanka Tamils, rather than merely lament the past.
India has itself wisely used an entire gambit of measures, including special financial support, positive discrimination and political consensus, to pull the Seven Sisters (seven Indian States in the North East) into the national mainstream. Of course, it also helps that we are a genuine democracy. Hospitality, high-end retail outlets and private nursing services in metropolitan India are invariably manned by in-migrants from the North East. Sikkim, the most recent entrant to the Republic (1975), is poised to become a global, organic, tourism hot spot.
Dr. Singh, our Prime Minister, outlined his principles of “Panchsheel” yesterday, to include value based, enlightened self-interest, but usefully, left unclear, what our “values” are. But surely, we should apply the same value system to assess governance standards in foreign governments, as we use to rule our own citizens. By these standards, Sri Lanka is unexceptionally unfortunate in having treated its citizens shabbily, but they are no exception.
Perhaps our values are identity specific. Perhaps we view shabby treatment, by foreign governments, of their citizens of Indian origin, more severely. This is an entirely reasonable approach and consistent with our anti-apartheid stand in South Africa. But this is not a State visit by the Indian PM to Sri Lanka which could be interpreted to mean India condoning the killings. The choice of venue for the CHOGAM is incidental.
It is all very well for Tamil Nadu politicos to play to their gallery but that is about as much traction, as there is, for the “not to go” groupies in India. If we can shake hands with Pakistan, over the blood of our soldiers, in the larger interest of regional security, surely we can be one of the many Commonwealth members in Colombo, nudging Sri Lankan towards Tamil integration.
India has been extremely pragmatic and successful in dealing with internal rebellion, albeit at significant cost to the unfortunate individuals caught in the ensuing war. Rapid growth, with equity, along with the hope of transition to democratic governance, is our medium term solution for dealing with domestic disaffection. We should sell this model to Sri Lanka. It is time for the PM to fill-in his travel request for Lanka.