The past is more than memory

The past is more than memory

By M.J. Akbar | 25 March, 2012
‘Kissinger ensured the withdrawal of Israeli troops on Egyptian soil but recognised the necessity of letting Egyptians keep their military gains since they had repossessed their own territory from Israel’.

Dr Henry Kissinger had just become America's Secretary of State when Egypt's President Anwar Sadat surprised the world and stunned his Arab brothers by launching a successful war against Israel on 6 October 1973, the day of Yom Kippur. Within 24 hours Egyptian troops had crossed the Red Sea and raced across the Sinai desert to recover territory lost in 1967. At the end of that fateful day, Kissinger sent a simple but powerful private message to Sadat through a non-official channel: 'You have begun the war with Soviet weapons, but you will need the power of American diplomacy to establish a peace.'

Sadat understood. Israel's counteroffensive was inevitable, shifting the course of war. America and Soviet Union went on high alert. It was America which helped establish not only the ceasefire lines that have held to this day, but also, over the next five years, negotiate the tripartite settlement between Sadat, Menachem Begin and Jimmy Carter that still constitutes the framework of peace in the region.

It was the kind of role that Delhi could have, and indeed should have, played in the Sri Lanka civil war that ended in such a bloody climax in January 2009. The DMK was in power in both Tamil Nadu and Delhi then, but it accepted the policy of restraint crafted by Dr Manmohan Singh and his Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee. That was wise. But wisdom petered out when the Congress-DMK alliance simply forgot that wars do not necessarily end with defeat; and in the specific case of Lanka Tamils, they had an obligation to ensure a comprehensive rehabilitation of Tamils that accommodated post-defeat realities. The message that Delhi should have sent to Colombo is obvious: "You have won the war with others' weapon, but you will need Delhi to find peace." However, the UPA government walked away from this responsibility, even though Tamil Nadu voted for the DMK-Congress alliance in the summer of 2009, which in turn played a decisive part in the re-election of UPA.

Perhaps the momentum was lost when Pranab Mukherjee left external affairs to go to finance, but a shift in portfolios cannot absolve a government whose first duty is protection of the national interest. Delhi refused to use the power of Indian diplomacy to eliminate the reasons that had led to the Lanka civil war. Kissinger, conversely, ensured the withdrawal of Israeli troops on Egyptian soil but recognised the necessity of letting Egyptians keep their military gains since they had repossessed their own territory from Israel. He understood that Egypt could not negotiate even an interim settlement with Israel as long as its land was under Israeli control. But in the three years that have passed since the death of Tamil Tigers leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran, Delhi has behaved as if the Tamil problem in Lanka was over, and the past is a bad memory which should be allowed to lapse in silence. But the past is never so cooperative, particularly if there are demons hidden in its fog.

Guilt is something that governments rarely, and foreign policy establishments never, admit. One wonders if there is a story of Delhi's collusion with Colombo during the last phase of the war, when some 40,000 civilians were allegedly butchered, that this UPA government would prefer to lock in the secrecy of archives. Is UPA worried that public debate will release ghosts that it wants safely buried?

Dropcap OnThe American resolution in the United States will not succeed in punishing anyone in Sri Lanka who committed war crimes. If anything it could increase the domestic popularity of President Rajapakse, who showed the necessary resolve to win a war that had lasted most of a generation. The Tamil Tigers did not fight by any rules; they spread havoc through terrorism when they could. They took the life of a Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi. But it has succeeded in reviving a debate which went quiet, but never disappeared.

It was public pressure from Indian Tamils that finally forced DMK and Congress to take a position; they had enough time to take the initiative themselves, but did not do so. Indian diplomats surely do not need the United Nations as a player in what, ideally, should have been part of the bilateral process between India and its neighbour. The sin of omission was compounded by the sin of commission. The manner in which UPA took this decision betrayed its vacillation and weakness. When foreign policy becomes hostage to coalition compulsions, it is evident that the political class is not doing any thinking. Over the last three years, there has been a sequence of blunders in the neighbourhood, from mentioning Balochistan in a communiqué with Pakistan to dropping the Teesta ball with Bangladesh and now a faux pas with Sri Lanka. Political uncertainty has made Indian diplomacy weaker than India's weight would warrant. The consequences will last longer than this government.


Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.