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Saturday, November 27, 2021

Diplomatic Ransom


India’s Constitution forbids state governments to meddle in foreign affairs
Tags : UPA | DMK | UNHRC | LTTE | Tamil Tigers | Sri Lanka | China |

Recently the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was stupefied when old ally Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (DMK) asked its five ministers to resign from the Union government remonstrating the Indian government’s reluctance to admonish Sri Lanka over its alleged ‘genocide’ against its minority Tamil population. This hard line DMK stance was fueled partly by a film by Callum Macrae called ‘No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka’, which was shown during the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) meeting in Geneva on March 1 this year. This film depicts horrific atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan soldiers on Tamils. This resulted in a US-sponsored resolution which holds the Sri Lankan Army guilty of war excesses resulting in the deaths of 40,000 civilians.

It placed India in a quandary. Last year New Delhi had voted against Sri Lanka at Geneva in a non-binding resolution. This had left the Lankans aghast. The reasons for their disappointment are not too difficult to fathom. India had provided crucial intelligence inputs to the Lankans to end their three-decade war against the LTTE. This victory against the Tamil Tigers would not have possible without India’s tacit approval and strategic support.

Regional parties like the DMK have been making deafening noises in the Parliament and Tamil Nadu Assembly demanding that India openly condemn the ‘genocide’ in Sri Lanka. Such a posture by India would be perceived as undue interference in the ‘internal matters’ of Sri Lanka. Colombo may end up being firmly in the Chinese camp. The signs are ominous and New Delhi simply cannot afford more hostility in the region than what already exists.

Sri Lanka has virtually given China control over the Hambantota region in the southern part of the country. China is in the process of developing a port there, which would augment its ‘String of Pearls’ strategy which seeks to fortify the Chinese sea lines of communication extending from the Chinese mainland to Port Sudan. This port along with the Chinese ports in Chittagong (Bangladesh), Gwadar (Pakistan) and Marao (Maldives) effectively surround India. Sri Lanka has allowed India to set up a consulate in Hambantota to observe the Chinese. They may not be as accommodating if India continues to cast aspersions on them in international forums.

Regional parties have a penchant for meddling in foreign policy issues. India’s relationship with Bangladesh is another case in point. The issue of water sharing, especially over the Teesta River has always been contentious. A new bilateral treaty (Teesta River Waters Agreement) was proposed which entailed an equal allocation of the Teesta River. This was to be ratified in September, 2011, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Dhaka. However the treaty did not materialize as the Trinamool Congress (TMC) opposed it. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee even declined to accompany the Prime Minister to Dhaka. This has put a severe strain on our relationship with Bangladesh. It should be considered a painful setback considering that the Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh has always been a well wisher and a staunch ally of India. This advantage should not be squandered, especially in a South Asian neighbourhood where India lacks reliable allies and its foreign policy is often perceived as being impertinent.

 The Sir Creek issue can be cited as another example of regional interests unduly influencing foreign policy. The dispute lies in the interpretation of the maritime boundary line between India and Pakistan on Sir Creek, a 96-km water body that empties out into the Arabian Sea from the Rann of Kutch. Last year India and Pakistan came very close to signing an agreement to resolve this dispute, till Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi threw a spanner in the works. He stated that it would amount to a ‘sell out’ to Pakistan and demanded that the agreement be put on the back burner. And that is where it went.

Regional parties have every right to put forth their views on foreign policy. Involvement of regional governments in foreign policy is a global phenomenon and has been defined as ‘constituent diplomacy’ by American scholar John Kincaid. While it is true that regional governments and parties need to be consulted and their feedback be welcomed, they should refrain from meddling in foreign policy for populist reasons.

The Indian Constitution clearly prohibits states from conducting foreign policy by concluding or ratifying treaties or directly dealing with international organizations. In today’s challenging global environment, Indian foreign policy needs coherence and clarity, precepts that have proven elusive in the immediate recent past. The foreign policy of any nation needs to safeguard paramount national interests at all times.

(Views expressed by the author are personal)

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017