India: Our Big Brother
By Dinouk Colombage
As with all regional superpowers, the idea of playing ‘Big Brother’ with its neighbours is rampant. The United States likes to play the role of overseer when it comes to Latin America, whilst China adopts a similar role in relations to Indo-China. As India’s military and economic might grows, so too does its role in the sub-continent.
As poor relations continue to exist between Pakistan and India, Bangladesh and Nepal have avoided falling under the Indian sphere of influence. This has left Sri Lanka as the last remaining country with the potential to adopt the title of ‘little brother’ to India.
India and Sri Lanka have had a shared history dating back almost 2,500 years. Initially the relationship began as one of equals, with the Sinhalese kings turning to skilled and unskilled workers from Southern India. As the years progressed and colonisation took over the sub-continent relations between the two nations was put on hiatus. With the conclusion of the Second World War, both nations were focussed on their individual struggle for independence. Following the successful pursuits of independence India and Sri Lanka once again resumed their close ties.
However, as the relationship continued to develop, it did so with India taking the dominant position. The outbreak of the civil war in Sri Lanka opened the door for India to take a more active role in Sri Lankan policy. India took an active role in an attempt to portray itself as a regional power. Initial involvement saw India, through its intelligence agency the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) provide arms, training and monetary support to Sri Lankan Tamil militant groups. India’s support for the movement was the first real portrayal of their intentions in the region. They wished to continue influencing the course Sri Lanka took following independence. A divided Tamil independence movement provided them with the opportunity to exert further control.
The signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord on July 29, 1987 was a direct result of India’s involvement in what can be construed as a domestic issue for Sri Lanka. Political analysts have described the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord as the starting point for India’s withdrawal from involvement in Sri Lankan policies. Mahesh Rangarajan, an Indian political analyst, has explained that the failures following the ‘implementation of the accord in 1987 resulted in India re-evaluating its approach to the sub-continent.’ The assassination of ex-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi saw a ban on the LTTE put in place. India also changed its role to merely an outside observer and occasional mediator.
With the war between the Tamil Tigers and government forces continuing to rage on, India found themselves fighting political battles on two fronts. Domestically, India was facing harsh criticism from the Tamil dominated South. Politicians in Tamil Nadu called upon the government to intervene and ensure that the Tamils in Sri Lanka were given their separate homeland. Due to the pressure exerted by the state governments in Southern India, the central government continued to maintain diplomatic pressure on the Sri Lankan government to pursue a peaceful resolution. The war was considered a domestic issue and as such India was unable to officially involve themselves unless invited by the Sri Lankan government. Due to this restriction India chose to follow a diplomatic path, avoiding confrontation with the government.
As the war drew to a conclusion in early 2009 many analysts criticised the Indian government for influencing the Sri Lankan government. India was conducting elections, and political commentators claimed that the incumbent Congress Party encouraged the Sri Lankan government to hold back its final offensive against the LTTE until the conclusion of the elections. Rani Singh, political commentator, explained that if the Congress Party were seen to have allowed the Sri Lankan government to pursue the final stages of the war during the elections it would have been political suicide. Three days after the conclusion of the Indian general election, President Rajapaksa declared victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
The end of the war saw India renew its efforts in playing the ‘Big Brother’ role over Sri Lanka. The rebuilding process that is underway in the island provided the Indian central government with an opportunity to flex its economic muscle. The Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement between India and Sri Lanka has come under much scrutiny by the Sri Lankan business community. It is believed that CEPA will allow India to create an economic monopoly within the Sri Lankan market. However, the agreement is India’s attempt at combating the growing influence China is exerting over Sri Lanka. The Indian government has recognised that similar to the manner in which China is providing economic aid, India must do the same to maintain its influence in Sri Lanka.
The importance placed on maintaining the role of political dominance within Sri Lanka by India was illustrated through the opening of consulates in both Jaffna and Hambantota, which is currently home to Chinese funded projects. Often countries do not open consulates in regions which do not directly affect their interests or nationals. Hambantota is home to the multi-million dollar port project funded by the Chinese. The opening of the consulate in Hambantota indicates that the Indian government wishes to keep a close watch over proceedings in the area, according to Rani Singh. Initially, though the Sri Lankan government objected to the opening of the consulate in the region, the Indians continued to mount pressure on the Rajapaksa regime. On November 28, the consulate was inaugurated by External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna.
The question now remains, why does Sri Lanka continue to maintain ‘close’ ties with a nation many have deemed ‘a big bully’? As China’s role in Sri Lanka grows, India will continue to exert its dominance to ensure the country does not slip from its sphere of influence. Sri Lanka also, would like to maintain its relations with India to continue receiving financial and political benefits. Whether Sri Lanka wishes to maintain close ties with India or is forced to by the regional giants, it is apparent that India will continue to assume the dominating role.