Why Question Lanka’s India Policy? Why Not the Other Way around?
Posted on February 20th, 2014

By Bandu de Silva

When India sneezes we do not always catch a cold”- Dr N.M.Perera, quoted in Ceylon Daily News, 1st March 1971.

Should developing a foreign policy to suit the aspirations of the stronger powers by the weaker powers in the neighbourhood or elsewhere, be an obligation of the latter? That idea came to my mind after reading Dayan Jayatilleke’s article in Ceylon Today of 15 February 2014. Dayan might say, “no”, that was not his purpose. Even if one can agree, I find Dayan’s article on the whole provides an entry point to raise a question in the opposite direction. That is  

something against what many of the critics of Sri Lanka foreign policy are raising in their discourses. That is based on the idea that in inter-state relations as conceived after the foundation of principles by the United Nations Organisation after WW II there cannot be one way relationships but bi-lateral or mutual relationships between two countries.

 If considering the reality notwithstanding UN’s pious declarations of equality of states which have been observed in the breach, that is a question that should not be asked by anyone on the Sri Lankan side, alright, let me modify it somewhat to propose that a small country’s foreign policy in relation to a big power, neighbor or otherwise, could reflect what the big power holds towards the small one. In other words, in the particular case we are discussing, the question is if Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is not a response to what the big neighbor India is holding towards the small island nation.   

 There are several ways of looking at the question as first set out. One is a justification using the historical perspective. That is that the small powers should adjust their relationship to suit the aspirations of big powers is the way global politics have fashioned and progressed  throughout known history. Closer home, we have the philosophy of “Matsya –Nyaya”(The Way of the Fish) , i.e., the big fish devouring the small ones, coming down from Vedic sages even before Kautilya brought it into his compendium on inter-state-relations, the Arthasastra.  If that is the way state relations should be judged, then the question raised in the above title is answered. The smaller nations, perforce, have to adopt themselves to the needs of the bigger ones. That means no further discussion is needed.

 The other approach which one finds often quoted by critics of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy towards India is the ‘axiom‘ of “geography” or “geographical proximity,”or ‘geo-politics’. (Jayatilleke quoted his father, Mervyn de Silva, former foreign policy analyst, who was my good friend from University of Ceylon days). Looking at this equation which has come to play a major role in determining relations between Sri Lanka and India, one may be tempted to ask, with Prof. Lin Yutang, if Sri Lanka was “a miscarriage of Mother Earth”! No! No Sri Lankan would subscribe to that thought though I wrote an article once on that theme. That is an insult to our great neighbor, “Mother  India,” as many in Sri Lanka conceive. My wife who has turned religious prays day and night wishing that she be born in Jambudeepa in her next birth. She has visited every known Buddhist and Hindu place worship in India not once but several times. That is not unusual. It is a general phenomenon here.

 Let me, however, ask if this idea of “geography” or “proximity” is not but an extension, if not a variation of the “Matsya Nyaya” principle? That is the small country next door being more vulnerable to be devoured than the one far away.

 To illustrate, how this can be understood in recent times, one has to look at the way India has been responding to the situation created in the Fiji island, where the South- Indian-origin element which held economic and Trade Union power as well as ran the democratically elected government consisting of majority Indians, was ousted by Fijian strong man who holds the Army. Neither India nor the international community has been able to change the situation except for expelling Fiji from the Commonwealth. That India’s approach to the situation in Sri Lanka had been quite different and effective points to the way “proximity’ alone works even where the causes can be not-dissimilar, i.e.,  the alleged negative treatment of peoples of Indian origin.  When someone says that the road to Geneva is through New Delhi and not even through Washington, one speaks of the reality that “proximity” has come to play in respect of Sri  Lanka.      

UN Charter

 Certain values have come to be accepted among nations since WW II, as embodied in the principles which went into the foundation of the United Nations Charter. That is the equality of states, irrespective of whether one is big or small. However, if one follows the way the Organization has advanced in the near 69 years of its existence, one may find that the idea of equality is far from being achieved in practice. The world was polarized behind two big powers  immediately after the formation of UN. The veto in the Security Council hindered any progress. As most Sri Lankans believe, our own small country is being presently subjected to pressures which those countries bringing the pressure themselves have not observed.

 When External affairs Minister Salman Kurshid was harping on the theme “No Big Brother: but Equal Partner,” to the visiting group of Sri Lankan media personalities this month, he was saying nothing new but paying lip service to the UN principles, though in reality he had nothing much to look back on India’s record towards Sri Lanka during the 66 years since India’s independence, for support for the “equal partnership” formula. The short exception was from 1956 onwards when SWRD Bandaranaike became the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, till the end of Mrs Bandaranaike’s second regime which ended with the electoral defeat of her party at General Elections in late 1977. Even the 1964 agreement on the People of Recent Indian Origin, as we shall see, arose, not because of a sudden change towards benevolence on the part of India but because of developments in Burma under General Ne win.       

 Revisiting N.M.Perera

 Now to come to the quotation from the former Sri Lankan Parliamentarian quoted above, can it be considered that the veteran Left politician was correct? It would give the impression that he was speaking as if Indian attitudes, more elaborately, India’s internal politics more than policy towards neighbourhood which did not concern Sri Lanka.

 This was not the case. Dr. N.M.Perera added a caveat to his first statement. He said no country influenced or could influence more thoroughly the politics of Ceylon than India. He spoke of the historic relics of the Indo-Ceylon special relationship which had a profound significance in contemporary Ceylonese affairs. India, he said, had been Ceylon’s unfailing source of inspiration: religion, politics, culture, ideas and politics. This was said in 1971 when Dr.Perera was the Minister of Finance of the government of Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike.  The period saw further consolidation of amicable mutual Indo-Sri Lanka relations and the signing of two agreements determining the maritime boundaries between the two countries. 

 However, if one were to judge from events preceding the ending of the war against terrorism in Sri Lanka which ended near four years ago, one comes across a situation which would make one re-think on what Dr.N.M.Perra said initially. Rather than Sri Lanka not catching a cold when India sneezes, which he observed, the events that preceded this long war and its progress saw the island nation suffer from double-pneumonia for near three decades when India sneezed. That is firstly, when India trained the Sri Lankan Tamil militants and armed them and provided financial support. The next phase was when India stepped in to stop the defeat of the LTTE after the success of the Vadamarachchi operation. A mild demonstration of force was used by the missiles- carrying Mirage fighter planes which accompanied the transport planes with orders to shoot if opposed and more in store if needed. So observed the Le Monde correspondent, Patrice Claude who was on one of the Transport  planes along with the Washington Post correspondent. He even saw the hatch opening before the planes arrived in Jaffna and sealed packages bearing Cawnpour Ordnance Factory being dropped over LTTE held Dharmapuram area. How did he know it was  Dharmapuram and LTTE held area unless he was told so by the pilot?

 The decade beginning with 1980 was then what one can understand in terms of the Kautilyan sense we referred to.

 A Big Power Model for India

  Developing on the second part of Dr.N.M. Perea’s observation, I have pointed out several times through my writing that independent India as the dominant regional power – no body has ever questioned that- with the advantage of her being a dominant cultural colossus, could have developed a policy model for relations with Sri Lanka using the traditional emotional relationship that the majority of Sri Lankans, Buddhists, hold towards India as the land of the Buddha and from where Buddhism was introduced into the island along with numerous other cultural assets, as the firm foundation for such a relationship. This is a model India could have developed, as it did with U Nu’s  Burma, if my first proposition is accepted. I even recall discussing this to the former Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, Mr.Gandhi, when we met at my friend the late Chitrasenas’ Mahara residence one evening to witness an Indo-Sri Lankan dance performance which Chitrasena staged for a few selected invitees. On that occasion I remember telling the High Commissioner that even the India Centre in Colombo was four to five days too late in coming. But this did not happen.

This need not be taken in isolation. As I said, India did, in fact, was seen developing  such a model in relation to her immediate neighbor to the east of the country, Burma, now Myanmar.  Premier Jawaharlal Nehru recognized the highly independent mind of the Burmese people, and accordingly, architectured  a bi-lateral policy with that in view. The hermitic Burmese Prime Minister, U Nu, played a complementary role. Nevertheless, there was a very important strategic reason why India wanted a strong relationship with Burma during the very early phase of India’s independence.

 Later on, in the mid 1950s, a similar policy was developed towards China, though it was not a “Big and Small ” country relationship. Burma remains the better example.

Case for a positive response towards Sri Lanka

 As an illustration of the religio-cultural base I spoke of, one can take the flow of Sri Lankan pilgrim tourists to India, both Sinhalese Buddhists and Christians from Negombo-Chilaw area who form the large segment of these tourists, number more than Indian tourists of all categories visiting Sri Lanka. These have been taking place on an incremental basis despite the inadequate facilities which exist at some of the Buddhist places of pilgrimage.

Yet the Indian government finds some constrains over extending ‘on- arrival’ visas to Sri Lankans though the facility was extended by Sri Lanka a few years back to Indians visiting here It was not a reciprocal arrangement. I would not like to bring India’s constraint into the discussion of big power –small-power equation as I know as a former Consular advisor and diplomat who dealt with the Indo-Sri Lankan problem in the 1960s that different considerations guide India ‘s reluctance. It is India’s prerogative and not seen directed against Sinhalese Buddhist and Christian pilgrims though the extension would, nevertheless, facilitate and even expand the flow of pilgrim visits to India.  

This has to be seen in the light of the problems India faced when Sri Lankan Tamil terrorist groups had free access to Tamil Nadu and the security issues that arose from it. It is then a security related problem arising from Sri Lankan Tamil-Tamil Nadu link though New Delhi will not admit it.

 I would even go to the extent of adding a caveat that Premier Indira Gandhi’s direction to the RAW to train and equip the Sri Lankan Tamil militant groups had, behind it an internal security consideration as much as an external one. She saw the danger of allowing lose groups of armed Sri Lankan Tamils roaming around in Tamil Nadu and even infiltrating to other states and their being trained by retired army personnel in Tamil Nadu and financed by the state government. That created the prospects of a serious security problem for India both internally and externally. It can be understood when one remembers that Premier Jawaharlal Nehru threatened to use the Indian armed forces when Tamil Nadu separatism reached a high point. The border war with China also came as a blessing in disguise to keep the divisive forces in check. Today, the Sri Lankan Tamil issues plays that role which keeps Tamil Nadu pre-occupied. This is an aspect which has not been studied adequately.

What Kurshid said and The Rub

Looking at what Salman Kurshid said about very recently, i.e., the idea of India-Sri Lanka equal partnership, the rub is not in what he said but the way an Indian High Commission in Colombo has been responding towards Sri Lanka, not just from the days of High Commissioner J.N.Dixit, but even earlier from the days of C.C.Desai over the “indo-Ceylon Problem,”  which earned him the rubric “Chee-Chee DesaI” in this country, vestiges of which manifest themselves from time to time, as when High Commissioner Nirupama Rao defended her former boss, JN Dixit, and more recently, when an Indian High Commission spokesperson reportedly dismissed the armed attack on Buddha Gaya as “India’s internal affair,” and now another saying “the visa issue is closed affair and Sri Lankans did not enjoy that facility.”

Such statements on sensitive issues, have not created the “equal-partner” relationship that Minister Salman Kurshid spoke of. Kurshid’s comments which have aroused wide and varied media interest in Sri Lanka, bear the whole mark of a well nuanced diplomatic outpouring, rare in India these days as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s disastrous vacillation on the issue of CHOGM attendance displayed which even embarrassed serious Indian media. Kurshid seems to be a master in the use of diplomatic nuances. Nothing more. He was trying to find a way to explain India’s stand on repeated Geneva resolutions and avoid any accusation of playing with other big powers against neighbouring Sri Lanka, a member of the SAARC regional group. Equal-partnership formula, in this instance, could pass on the responsibility to Sri Lanka. That is simply what Kurshid did.

Present manifestations of Indian Policy 

 As for present manifestations of Indian policy towards Sri Lanka, what is now more evident is that India has no overall policy embracing the whole of Sri Lanka as one would have expected in terms of the model I discussed earlier, to launch which there was a ready platform. That was a platform was almost India’s for the asking, in contrast to the platform now developed among the Sri Lankan Tamils, whose Vellala dominated society once considered itself superior to that of Tamil Nadu in all respects, including the language spoken in Jaffna. But ironically, the present day orientation of Indian policy, notably, that of Tamil Nadu, has come to gravitate towards Sri Lankan Tamils. That is something that Tamil Nadu did not display on the issue of people of recent Indian origin in Sri Lanka who came from mostly Tinnevalley and Ramnad districts.  

 All the talk about millennia old cultural relations with the island nation then have failed to make an impress on developing a truly Sri Lanka oriented policy by New Delhi. What Dr N.M Perera spoke about, the historic relics of the Indo-Ceylon special relationship which had a profound significance in contemporary Ceylonese affairs, is confined to rhetoric used on ceremonial occasions like India’s Independence Day messages to Sri Lankans. India has been responding by helping to hold expositions of Buddhist relics in Sri Lanka but that too, as the arrangements for the last exposition of the claimed Kapilavastu relics saw , was tied up by agreement to India doing in archaeological excavations at Tiruketisvaram, as the Indian media reported. Were the relics used for a deal with the government of Sri Lanka?  

 If there is any vestige of an all island embracing policy, it is one based on India’s strategic considerations alone. The policy involving Sri Lankan Tamils, in the final analysis, can also be seen as a component of that strategic dimension. The observation made by General Harikirat Singh who commanded the IPKF in Sri Lanka initially, that the quality of training given by Raw to Sri Lankan Tamil militants, firstly to TELO, which he says was a large criminal group and anti-social elements which had no political goals, ideology or commitment to the cause of Eelam; and in the meantime, other groups also approached RAW, points to the development of Indian interest in Sri Tamil cause. (Harkirat Singh: Intervention in Sri Lanka, 2006, p.23). 

 More important was his observation that the “main consideration leading to military intervention in Sri Lanka was to prevent the Americans from getting a foothold in Sri Lanka. He says, it was feared that if the Americans were allowed a toehold, they would activate the oil wells at Trincomalee and perhaps, establish a base in the Indian Ocean. (Harikirat Singh: p.24/25) .The militants trained in underwater demolitions were to be used to sabotage foreign ships entering Sri Lankan harbours. That was how the Sri Lankan Tamil issue became part of India’s strategic considerations. If Tamil Nadu is seen taking over the issue of Sri Lankan Tamils, it only camouflages the real issue. New Delhi is heavily involved. My former diplomatic Colleague Ambassador Izeth Hussain is on the spot when he says that Sri Lanka’s ethnic issue is an Indo-Sri Lankan issue. (The Island, 17 February, 2014).

  How Tamil Nadu shows no real interest in Sri Lankan Tamils, at least a section of them, the fishermen of Jaffna, is seen from the way it is pursuing the interests of Tamil Nadu fishermen who are fishing in Sri Lankan territorial waters with impunity. (The Hindu, quoted in Infolanka dated 13 February 2014).

            [ The next article will go into details of evolution of Indo-Sri Lanka by lateral relations in the context of discussion in this article].


8 Responses to “Why Question Lanka’s India Policy? Why Not the Other Way around?”

  1. Lorenzo Says:

    The fish affair is a good avenue for SL to DIVIDE and pit TN Tamils and SL Tamils.

    This is the way forward. SL can JUSTIFIABLY use it like a weapon.

    But Tamils in SL will NOT support SL just because the navy is protecting their fish and livelihood. For Tamils in SL, TE is more important always!!

    Tamil fishing community in the north GENERALLY vote for SLFP and UNP but it is a SMALL number.

    If one big power is dictating terms to us, we should get down another big work.

  2. Lorenzo Says:

    I like the way news report selectively. Earlier UK was going to bring the resolution against SL. Then they said it will be US and UK CO-SPONSORED. Now UK has dropped off fully!!! Now it is Canada – US CO-SPONSORED resolution. Why? SOME UK war crimes investigated at the ICC. UK is embarassed.

    Now UK is sidelined.

    IF MR goes to London for Commonwealth nonsense in May this year he should DENOUNCE war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Faulklands, Northern Ireland, etc.

  3. sena Says:

    Challenging other countries etc. all depend on how strong we are economically. With our economy always looking out for assistance as well as technical know how even for the simplest of tasks, such criticism is a luxury. Sad eighty years of higher education has not contributed anything towards developing a knowledge based economy. Especially medical, engineering and management professionals should be embarrassed about this situation.

  4. Fran Diaz Says:

    Aid to Sri Lanka always comes with some tag such as workers from the aid country doing the project. Is that one of the reasons why our own people never get to shine in projects ?

    Also, the GoSL in power is usually in a hurry to get a project done while they are in power – so hand it over to a company abroad with a state of the art, ready to go plans, and hold them responsible too ? Also, most of the time, the foreign companies have wide experience on the projects considered, and may make fewer mistakes.

    For large scale manufacturing, the size of Lanka country is a drawback. For example, to build many Petroleum Refineries may not suit a small country like Lanka.
    If one plant is built, then the experience is gained from that one to build another. This is denied to a small country.
    The State Fertiliser Manf Corpn. built a plant (with expertise and aid from foreign countries) for manufacture of Urea fertilizer and now this plant is closed up. No one is held accountable either …..

    The protracted war with the LTTE was another reason. Funds went to war and not to research.

    We hope the trend will now be reversed. We hope the North will not destabilize the country again.

    India will be happy to supply Sri Lanka with sub-standard goods, with narry a complaint from the receiving end !

  5. Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha Says:

    “Should developing a foreign policy to suit the aspirations of the stronger powers by the weaker powers in the neighborhood or elsewhere, be an obligation of the latter?”

    This repeated concept that the size and population of a nation somehow makes that nation a “big power” while the size and population of a small nation means it is a lesser power is skewed. India’s population is NOT her strength. It is her liability. The more mouths New Delhi has to feed the greater the chance for a catastrophe. At One Billion three hundred million people which is increasing at 15 million per year is not a plus for India. Then if one takes into account that 60% of that population live on one dollar per day and 37% of that 60% live on a dollar 50 cents per day. That is a great liability.

    Then when one considers that 80% of India’ population is 40 years and younger, making that nation with the largest pool of people who are in their working age it becomes a nightmare for India’s growth rate is currently 4% down from 8%. That for a developing nation is stagnation. With hundreds of millions of people not able to find a decent job it leads to internal a destabilizing force. The Nazals who came from the village of Naxalbari were formed to deal with the entrenched poverty of India. Now they are called the Maoists and are present in a dozen Indian states.

    Other destabilizing forces within India are the separatist movements from the Khalistan movement in the Punjab supported by Pakistan to those in Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram to Kashmir. Finally add to this the problems caused by the equally entrenched caste system to even the “water wars” and the corruption endemic from New Delhi to her slums which by the way are growing and the “big nation equals power” falls apart.

    Then add the fact that a much smaller nation, Pakistan has as many nuclear bombs if not more than India and the size of a nation becomes irrelevant. Keep in mind an island nation called Great Britain created the world’s largest empire, not because she was a big nation, but because of her people. As for big nations Canada is the second largest nation in the world but is hardly a power.

    Sri Lanka has all the ingredients to be a power that could equal if not surpass India, if one realizes that Singapore at 127 square miles is one of the Financial capitals of the world and economically is a powerhouse and is far better managed that “big” India. Sri Lanka’s attributes include the fact that she is an island nation, her allies include two Security Council members who are regional powers as well and have formed an alliance between them that makes the Sino/Russian union one of the most powerful entities on the planet.

    Sri Lanka must copy those who have achieved power. Create her own military industry, Get the technology any which way she needs to since that is the way the US, UK, Russia etc got to be nuclear powers. Become a naval force to rival the South Asian nations, be more assertive in the UN. Do away with internal problems like the 13th amendment and pass laws similar to Singapore that punishes forces bent on defaming the nation or creating forces to divide it. In another article dealing with Sri Lanka’s energy needs that can be met with technology. An article on the power of Algae alone would give independence to the oil imports, Invest more in alternative energy.

    Develop an industry that sells cars, buses, boots and other paraphernalia to foreign militaries. Just meeting the clothing needs of a military would bring in profits. The technology to build a Sri Lankan car, or motorcycle or truck is the same technology for the military. Sri Lanka can solve many of her foreign policy problems by becoming a nation of power. A classic example is Iran which now the US is bowing to her wishes.

  6. Lorenzo Says:

    This is going to be HELL for us.

    We MUST disrupt this somehow. On the positive at least these subhumans have a PLAN. We don’t.

    IF TN becomes the EPICENTER of power, any fool can understand it will be disastrous for SL. Already TN is influencing Endian policy without being the epicenter of power!!

    “Dropping a broad hint of her readiness to play a major role in national politics, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa on Friday said she has a vision for India in which Tamil Nadu will play a key role.

    The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leader, whose name is making rounds as a possible prime ministerial candidate, revealed her vision for a “resurgent India,” at a function where she unveiled various policies besides the second part of Tamil Nadu Vision Document 2023.

    Her vision, she explained, is of a “nation with an inclusive society and open markets; a nation of enterprise and creativity driven by knowledge and shaped by family values; a nation of growth with equity; a nation with peace stability and development; [and] a modern secular and prosperous India.”

    “I want to assure you all that this day is not far,” she said. “It is my firm conviction that within India, Tamil Nadu will emerge as the epicentre of such power.” Her “government is not a government that merely talks and puts out lofty ideals and policies; it actually gets down to taking hard decisions and staying the course.”

    On the Vision Document 2023, which has set a target of 14 per cent growth in the manufacturing sector every year, she said since the launch of the first phase in March 2012, the State government had signed 33 MoUs with various companies.

    The total investment envisaged in the projects was Rs.31,706 crore, and the employment potential was for over 1.62 lakh persons.

    Documents pertaining to 16 of the MoUs, for setting up various projects at an investment of Rs.5,081 crore were signed by representatives of the companies and Principal Secretary Industries C.V.Sankar in the presence of the Chief Minister.

    Ms.Jayalalithaa also unveiled the Tamil Nadu Industrial Policy 2014; the Tamil Nadu Automobile and Auto Components Policy 2014, described as the first such; and the Tamil Nadu Biotechnology Policy 2014. She launched the website of the Tamil Nadu Infrastructure Development Board.”

    – the hindu

  7. Nanda Says:

    If we do our part, it will be OK.

    1. Develop three forces to make sure one-way travel only.
    1. Do not by Automobile made in India.
    2. Do not buy ANYTHING made in Tamil Hole.

  8. Naram Says:

    While endorsing much of the learned contributions, from the well informed audience may I add a few words. Small nations even with low per capita income or resources can be seen to prosper in the wake or shadow of larger nations, as we saw in Taiwan, Hong Kong or Singapore; in the case of Sri Lanka the small nation its own still smaller minorities have been its continuous source of conflicts and major powers know this as they created it. Ask a Senior official in Singapore in private how their system works they will say nepotism is rife, for example a sinister quota system ensure that few from so called ethnic minorities enter Medicine stream; there are moves to encourage women to go back to the tradition role of child rearing. However strong government keeps down the dissent. In contrast Sri Lanka recently erected a memorial for soldiers from India who died in the IPKF; a problem which had a large Indian input in its creation.

    Sri Lanka’s attempt to crush terrorism took so long on one hand due to the presence of big brother a short distance away and the ease with which political and military machinery was bought before the rise of MR. Having said d that we have not being successful in obtaining a quality assured product / service for Electricity generation / distribution at at Norochchalai. Now after many problems of delivering the service is said that terms are to change to a Build Own Operate Transfer scheme with the Chinese contractor.

    The progress of Indian funded construction of the rail link to Jaffna seems to take ages, and one fears the fate of the service we are likely to get from Electricity Sampur. One cannot escape the fact that Sri Lanka lacks the capital and the technical prowess for such undertakings. Basically our professional classes are footloose in a society that only rewards the political class. In the old day World Bank etc provided a consultants but that was a t a huge price and that is only possible if the industry produces the wealth necessary for such purchases.

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