Out To India
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.