He had a summit with President Obama in the White House, and he saw China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing and
Much as Prime Minister Singh would love to attend the “Commonwealth Heads of Government” conflab that opens in Sri Lanka next Friday, he yielded instead to urgent priorities on his own turf. In this case, the obstacle was the abiding hatred of India’s Tamils for the government of Sri Lanka, the island nation just a few miles off India’s southern coast.
National emblem of Sri Lanka ( Wikipedia)
No way could Singh’s government in Delhi convince Indian Tamils to accept his attendance at the conference as in the interests of India’s relations with the 52 other members of the British commonwealth. Just about every Indian Tamil you meet believes Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority, about 85 % of its 20 million people, is still persecuting the country’s Tamils more than four years after the defeat of Tamil rebels in a bloody war that dragged on for more than a quarter century.
Singh’s decision, however, encountered a barrage of criticism, notably from The Hindu, the famous newspaper that’s headquartered in Chennai, capital of the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu.
“Surrender,” said the top line of its editorial after Singh’s decision was announced. ”Once again, foreign policy objectives have been sacrificed on the altar of political expedience,” The Hindu editorial began. Pulling no punches, the editorial concluded ominously, “It is debatable if Sri Lanka will turn into a Chinese satellite in the Indian Ocean as is commonly feared, but clearly the island will be looking for other allies in the region and beyond.”
In conversations in Tamil Nadu, home of a majority of India’s 73 million Tamils, you never stop hearing stories of murder and rape of the Tamils of Sri Lanka, whose ancestors migrated there before and during British rule over South Asia. The sense of isolation and persecution of Tamils on Sri Lanka means the country remains essentially divided with little prospect of peaceful co-existence that would appear as the best solution.
Singh might have risked the political fallout of sojourning for a few days at a commonwealth conference about any time but now when his own Congress Party is running hard to perpetuate Congress rule in elections for the Lok Sabah, lower house of parliament, next Spring.
The problem is that tough-talking Narendra Modi, chief minister of the prosperous state of Gujarat, is waging a strong campaign as candidate of the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party. Singh, 81, has no notion of a third term as prime minister but has no desire to risk the loss of millions of votes for Congress candidates by appearing oblivious to demands for a boycott of the commonwealth conference.
The Indian media has taken to referring to Singh’s sessions overseas with top foreign leaders as his “farewell tour,” and there’s no doubt that he wanted to meet colleagues-in-power in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo. Instead he’s going to have to send his external affairs minister, Salman Khurshid. While that gesture might appear as a sensible compromise, Tamils whom I have met in and around the major city of Chennai are less than thrilled.
The consensus among them is that the government in New Delhi should totally give the conference a miss. Singh’s final decision represented a triumph for Indian Tamils who’ve been bringing all sorts of pressure to bear for Singh not go.
They had the sympathy, for instance, of South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who during a visit to Delhi last week joined the chorus of those urging a boycott of the conference . So far, aside from Prime Minister Singh, only Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said he will stay away. Britain’s Prime MinisterDavid Cameron has indicated he sees the conference as a chance to urge Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapakse to go easy on the Tamil minority.
That’s hard to do, though, against a background of fighting in which “Tamil terrorists” — Tamil Tigers — are held responsible for bombings and assassinations. Singh told Rajapakse that his government “stood firmly” in Sri Lanka’s “struggle against terrorism.” Tamil terrorism was responsible for the assassination in 1991 of Rajiv Gandhi two years after he stepped down as prime minister.
India has reason, though, for wanting good relations with Sri Lanka. That’s the influence of China, which has provided a $500 million port facility for the country and also is selling arms to Sri Lanka just as it does to Pakistan but not to India. Indian commentators see the Chinese-built port as part of the “string of pearls” that China is establishing in nations west and east of India in the new Great Game for power and influence in the region.
“An unwise move, it will cost us dearly,” editorialized The Deccan Chronicle, leading newspaper of Hyderabad, the major city of south central India. The government’s decision “will rank among its lowest points,” the paper ranted. As a result, it said, India has “ceded strategic space to the Chinese and the Pakistanis in a key area” and “India’s voice will count for less in other countries in the region.”
The editorial concluded: “A big country not respected in its neighborhood carries little weight elsewhere in the world.”