New Delhi: In a move fraught with domestic political implications, India on Thursday abstained from voting on a US-sponsored United Nations (UN) resolution slamming Sri Lanka’s human rights record and calling for the world body to investigate rights abuses in the island-state.

A person close to the developments in New Delhi said the surprise abstention was a “political" decision—meaning it had been taken at top levels of the government. There were 23 votes in favour of the resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, 12 against, including those by Pakistan and China, and 12 abstentions.

India, which has previously voted three times against Sri Lanka’s rights record at the same forum, said it had reservations over the “intrusive approach" favoured by the resolution that “undermines national sovereignty and institutions (which) is counterproductive".

“India believes that it is imperative for every country to have the means of addressing human rights violations through robust national mechanisms," India’s ambassador to the forum Dilip Sinha said.

“Any external investigative mechanism with an open-ended mandate to monitor national processes for protection of human rights in a country is not reflective of the constructive approach of dialogue and cooperation," Sinha added.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa described New Delhi’s position as “encouraging". Sri Lanka maintains that the resolution was an unacceptable intrusion and a violation of its sovereignty. India, faulted many times for its own human rights record, has been a longtime opponent of external probes into what it calls the internal affairs of countries. ​

“This is an act of courage by India. There was more pressure on the government this time than before," said Lalit Mansingh, a former foreign secretary, referring to India’s previous votes against Sri Lanka that followed pressure from the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) erstwhile partner, the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) from Tamil Nadu.

“By taking the decision to abstain, India has been bold enough to go back to its previous stance that it would not vote on country-specific resolutions," Mansingh said, adding that the domestic repercussions of the vote would be clear in a few days.

With a general election under way from 7 April and the UPA facing an anti-incumbency vote, the expectation was that India would be voting for the resolution with an eye on potential allies in Tamil Nadu.

India’s 72 million Tamils share strong and close cultural ties with Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority, who accuse the Sri Lankan authorities of failing to protect Tamil civilians during the 37-year civil war with the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The 1972-2009 civil war claimed 100,000 lives, according to UN estimates. In 2011, UN monitors said that tens of thousands died during the army’s final offensive against the LTTE, which was fighting to establish a separate state in the north and east of Sinhala-majority Sri Lanka.

The DMK, the main opposition party in Tamil Nadu, quit the ruling coalition last year citing the Union government’s failure to persuade Sri Lanka to meaningfully address Tamil human rights.

In the past, New Delhi has expressed disappointment with the Sri Lankan government’s slow pace of reintegrating Tamils into the economic and political mainstream as well as the tardy pace of rehabilitating Tamil refugees displaced by the civil war.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stayed away from a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka in November, a move widely seen as aimed at placating both the DMK and the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu.

India’s vote came just a day after DMK chief M. Karunanidhi extended an olive branch to the Congress, saying: “If the Congressmen express regret and get back to their secular credentials, DMK will support them, not in terms of votes, but to change the evils that had gripped them."

On Thursday, the AIADMK and the DMK were unavailable for official comments at the time of going to press, with their leaders busy with election campaigns in the districts.

“I will not be able to comment," said finance minister P. Chidambaram’s son Karti Chidambaram, who is representing the Congress from Sivaganga constituency in the Lok Sabha election.

But a senior former DMK lawmaker said: “It shows how the Congress is against Tamilians—since the DMK was part of the UPA last time, the party was forced to vote (for the resolution)."

“The Congress is ruining their own chances (of forming the next government at the Centre) by committing mistakes after another. The DMK will not be interested in allying with the Congress at any cost," said the former member of Parliament, requesting anonymity.

The government received backing from the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose convener of the external affairs cell, Seshadri Chari, described the abstention as a “very considered decision".

“India is already talking to Sri Lanka and it will impress upon Sri Lanka to do its bit," he said.

Support also came from BJP leader Subramanian Swamy. “I congratulate PM Manmohan Singh for ordering the Indian delegation in UNHRC not to support the dangerous US resolution seeking international probe into the so-called human rights violations during 2009 anti-LTTE war by Sri lanka," Swamy said in a statement.

Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for the external affairs ministry, said India changed its vote because of the resolution’s attempts to “impose an international investigative mechanism" in an intrusive manner that “undermines national sovereignty".

“We are aware that while significant steps have been taken, much more needs to be done by the government of Sri Lanka. International efforts should aim to enable Sri Lanka to investigate allegations of human rights violations through a comprehensive, independent and credible national mechanism and bring to justice those found guilty. An external investigative mechanism with an open-ended mandate to monitor national processes is not a constructive approach," he added.

Gnani Sankaran, a political commentator who recently joined the Aam Aadmi Party in Tamil Nadu, said India’s abstention was set to become a talking point for “all Dravidian parties, who support the Sri Lankan issue, during the election campaign".

“It was a wrong position to be taken by India. By not votin, India can’t escape from the issue, nor is it a solution. The Congress, which is already weak in Tamil Nadu, will face the brunt of this as major regional parties will not ally with them," he added.

S. Bridget Leena, Gyan Varma and AFP contributed to this story.

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