5th September, 2004  Volume 11, Issue 8

First with the news and free with its views                                     First with the news and free with its views                             First with the news and free with its views                                    


Selling Out To India

There is no gainsaying the fact that Sri Lanka's relationship with Mother India has had its ups and downs. Our little island drifts, like an insignificant piece of flotsam, on India's giant tide, never quite knowing which way the tide is flowing. In many ways, our fate hangs on the capricious whims of bureaucrats in New Delhi's foreign service and the infamous Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), a compassionate euphemism for a secret service that was modelled on the Soviet Union's dreaded KGB. Unless we prove to be exceptionally troublesome, we seldom earn the attention of anyone higher up Delhi's political ladder than a deputy foreign minister: the fate of Little Lanka is in the hands of the clerks and peons of India's diplomatic service.

Indira Gandhi had little trouble from us, for like Mary's little lamb, Sirimavo Bandaranaike aped her pro-Russian foreign policy for much of the duration of the Cold War, leading the Non-Aligned Movement (= Soviet-aligned) and all. That, after all, was convenient for it helped establish the notorious National Front Marxist demi-dictatorship in Colombo. What is more, we helpfully sided with India in its wars with China and Pakistan, earning us no end of brownie points - for the time being.

With the opening up of the Sri Lankan economy in 1977 however, Delhi had a rude awakening. The grass was growing greener on this side of the Palk Straits, and its would-be colony to the south had begun drifting towards Western markets and Western investment. The pill for that malady was quickly found in the form of the LTTE, which RAW went to no end of trouble to fund, arm and train. The supply chain of arms and explosives from Tamil Nadu carried on remorselessly even as the Indian Navy, aircraft carriers, submarines and all, took to playing not just Nelson, but Drake.

It was not until 1987 that India showed its hand. Then, when the Sri Lanka Army had surrounded the LTTE and was poised for Armageddon at Vadamarachchi, New Delhi stepped in and threatened invasion. Indian Air Force Dassault Mirage fighter-bombers illegally over-flew Sri Lanka, grounding the SLAF and threatening to shoot any air traffic out of the sky, while IAF cargo planes parachuted rice and salt (why salt?) into Jaffna. The Indian Navy even sent a flotilla of gunboats, which had to be firmly but politely turned away off Karainagar.

The price for desisting was the Indo-Lanka Accord thrust upon us by Rajiv Gandhi. While touted as an Indian guarantee of Sri Lanka's unity (the overt price for which was the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which brought with it the disastrous provincial council system), India was quick to exploit its advantage by requiring Sri Lanka to hand over the Trincomalee oil-tank farm to Delhi. No one was able to explain what this had to do with Indian altruism in designing a system of political devolution for us: as it happened, both the 13th Amendment and the Accord were drafted in Delhi and presented to J.R. Jayewardene by Gandhi's viceroy in Colombo, Mani Dixit, with a curt, "sign here."

Few tears were shed for Gandhi, who was shamelessly hated in the Sri Lankan hinterland. So much so that President Premadasa was openly praised for boycotting his funeral.

While the Gandhian ambitions for the southern neighbour it perceived as troublesome was neo-colonialist, there was a gear shift in Delhi following the Soviet collapse, when Delhi itself decided finally to shake off the socialist legacy of the Gandhis and modernise India. For all this, much praise: India is not only a bastion of democracy in Asia, it is now also a model for free-market development in a developing-country environment. India espouses secularism, middle-class values, cultural richness, racial tolerance and a proud and independent foreign policy, all of which are a model to the rest of the world. It is fast becoming the world's biggest market after China, and its rate of economic growth makes Sri Lanka look like the retard in the family.

But for all its virtues, India suffers from a thirst to dominate its lesser South Asian neighbours, all of which might have been states of the mother country but for the concatenations of circumstances history bestowed on the region in the mid-20th century. While Warsaw Pact-like ambitions ruled Indian thinking up to the 1980s, Delhi's goals today focus more on rupees and cents. It is economic imperialism that governs India's policy towards Sri Lanka today, and how!

The South Asian Free Trade Agreement was touted as a true step in the direction of multi-lateralism in the region, a harbinger of an economic union that would soon evolve into something along the lines of the EU. Three years into its implementation however, India has not only in effect excluded Pakistan from the treaty, but twisted arms in Colombo to ensure we do not sign up with Pakistan either. SAFTA remains a bilateral tariff agreement with India, and no prizes for guessing who has the better deal out of that. While Indian corporates have swept into Sri Lanka, every conceivable obstacle has been placed in the way of Sri Lankan produce finding markets in India.

In 2002, Colombo permitted Indians visa-free entry to the island. Did Delhi reciprocate? No way. The excuse trotted out by apologetic Indian diplomats at cocktail parties is that the Pakistani spies might use Sri Lanka as an entry point to India. As puerile as this argument might sound, let us credit it. Why then, can't India at least award visas free of charge to Sri Lankan pilgrims to Buddha Gaya, something it does for Buddhist pilgrims from Myanmar? Why can't long-term visas be given to Sri Lankan businessmen as a matter of routine?

The latest Indian conquest has come in the way of the hegemony India is seeking in Sri Lanka's oil supply. A significant part of fuel distribution has already been given to IOC. Now, the alliance government is poised to satiate Delhi's thirst for absolute control by giving the remainder to Bharat Petroleum. It is no secret that oil today rules the world. Wars are fought for it, and government's overthrown for it. And without so much as a murmur (not even from the bigots of the JHU, who claim to have Sri Lanka's interests so much at heart), we are now poised to give Delhi absolute control of our oil supply. If that is not subservient folly, what is?

India's High Commissioner designate, Nirupama Rao has now arrived in Sri Lanka, to replace Nirupan Sen, who won himself a nation's hatred for trying to manipulate the Colombo government in the manner popularised by the equally despised Dixit. We shall watch with interest to see whether Rao will strive to make a difference, or whether she represents yet another symptom of India's quest for regional domination.

Sovereignty is becoming unfashionable in the world that is unfolding before us. Economic and political unions between nations are becoming the order of the day, and borders are disappearing before our eyes despite the setback given to this ideal by 9/11. The tension between India and Pakistan cannot last forever, and it seems inevitable that sooner, if not later, the South Asian nations will be the happy family that the founders of SAARC dreamed it would be. But India needs to take a leaf out of the example of the EU, where the French concept of egalit‚ rules. Just as the focus of the EU has shifted from Strassbourg to Brussels, so must New Delhi come to recognise that the future lies in winning friends by spontaneous openhandedness and not economic terrorism. India will be a richer country for it, and Sri Lanka a happier one. Indeed, a consummation devoutly to be desired.

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