By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
Refined, sophisticated and articulate Dr Sashi Tharoo (ST hereafter), an accomplished and skilled international civil servant from India, was in Sri Lanka a few days prior the customary shut down for Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebrations. The official purpose was to deliver the key note address at Dinesh Weerakkody’s book ‘Ranil Wickremesinghe: A Life’. Yet, his address smacked of a veiled caveat to Sri Lanka of its dealings with China.
After serving the United Nations for 29 years, he returned to India in 2006. A member of the Indian National Congress, he was elected to the Indian parliament, Lok Sabha from Thiruvananthapuram, in Kerala in 2009. He held the posts of Minister of State for External Affairs and subsequently, Human Resource Development in former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s cabinet. He currently serves as Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs.
Accolades for his speech in July 2015 were many, from both at home and abroad, including of this writer, for the impassioned speech he made during a debate at the Oxford Union debating society. The debate was titled ‘This house believes Britain owes reparations to her former colonies’, which was put on by the world-famous debating society, the Oxford Union. In content, it was brilliant. In delivery, it was par excellence.
ST spoke of the economic toll that British rule took on India (at the time of arrival of East India Company in the sub-continent, India in its current form did not exist but we will let it pass!). He highlighted India’s share of world trade of 23% when the British arrived (in 1614) which had dropped to 4% when they departed (in 1947). He attributed the decline due to India being governed for the benefit of Britain. He further stated, “Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India. In fact, Britain’s industrial revolution was actually premised upon the de-industrialization of India.” ST concluded his speech stating: “As far as I’m concerned, the ability to acknowledge a wrong that has been done, to simply say sorry, will go a far, far, far longer way than some percentage of GDP in the form of aid. What it required is accepting the principle that reparations are owed. Personally, I’d be quite happy if it was one pound a year for the next two hundred years, after the last two hundred years of Britain in India.”
ST’s key note address covered many facets of ancient and more recent aspects of Indo – Sri Lanka relations and cooperation. He waxed eloquent on relations dating all the way back to India’s sacred epic, the Ramayana, striking similarities of the Kandyan and Orissa dance forms not forgetting the historical bonds and ties of kinship and cultural affiliations of Sri Lanka’s minority Tamil community with their kinsmen in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu. He referred to the growth in trade and investments, cooperation in the fields of education, culture and defense, frequent cricket matches, a broad understanding on major issues of international interest and a relationship marked by frequent and close contact at the highest political level.
He overlooked the absence of a visit to Sri Lanka by an Indian Prime Minister for 28 years between 1987 and 2015, including the tenure of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in whose cabinet he served.
ST availed of this opportunity to voice India’s concerns over China’s interest in the Indian Ocean region which according to him, “undermines India’s historical links and cultural networks built over generations and centuries.” The new Chinese ‘Maritime Silk Road’ initiative was compared with a previous Silk Road avatar undertaken by the celebrated Chinese Admiral Zheng He in the fifteenth century. ST cautioned “those who seek to revive historical links might also wish to remember historical inequities”.
It applies equally to the one time Chinese invader and multiple Indian invaders who invaded Sri Lanka from 205 BC. The Yongel Emporer’s magnanimity and graciousness in restoring and returning to Sri Lanka of King Alakeshvara, imprisoned and taken to Nanjing by Admiral Zheng, was craftily avoided.
This writer, in a previous essay, wrote of most Indian statesmen, politicians, intellectuals and many others justifying India’s involvement in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka, based on reasons of kinship between the 1.2 million Tamil community in Sri Lanka and 70 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu. ST too sang from the same copy book. He justified India’s continued engagement with Sri Lanka. “This is not a case of New Delhi interfering gratuitously in the internal affairs of its southern neighbor. India cannot help but be involved, both because it is Sri Lanka’s closest neighbor geographically and because its own Tamil population – some 70 million people in the politically important southern state of Tamil Nadu—remains greatly concerned about the wellbeing of their ethnic cousins across the Palk Straits”.
However, India does not apply the same theory to the wellbeing of 4.8 million Indian Muslims in Indian occupied Kashmir and the concern for their wellbeing by 3.6 million Muslims in Assad Kashmir and 181 million Muslims in Pakistan, despite common land borders. Suffice to state, India need to manage its 70 million Tamil population in the same manner Pakistan manage its 181 million Muslims, when Kashmir is in turmoil.
“Mutual engagement is in the fraternal spirit that characterizes our friendship and history and in light of the values our nations celebrate and aspire to always uphold and reinforce” ST continued. Should not India practice such an ideal inclusively and not selectively?
Sri Lanka has no desire nor will it benefit in any way by undertaking any exercise detrimental to the security of India’s southern seaboard. Even to a layman such as this writer, that much is abundantly clear.
The “Indian perspective of distinct warmth towards China and Pakistan” referred to by ST was, from a Sri Lankan perspective, is India’s own doing. It declined to sell desperately needed armaments to defeat a terrorist movement which India to begin with, had natured, housed, trained and armed. Friendship towards helpful nations is best explained with the word ‘gratitude’ in the Oxford Dictionary and ‘aabhaar’ in the Hindi language. Nevertheless, the visit by Chinese submarines to the Colombo harbor in late 2014 was a monumental blunder of the previous Sri Lankan administration.
Indian politicians and intellectuals of the likes of ST need understand, notwithstanding the garlands, drummers and welcome pandals arranged at welcome ceremonies, ordinary Sri Lankans view India with extreme suspicion and resentment. A simple test would be a cricket match between India and Pakistan played in Colombo. There will be few locals cheering for the Indian side. Reasons for it are many, which are historical and more recent.
Our history books contain details of repeated invasions of the island by South Indian kings in the ancient times. It is compounded by India’s involvement in the birth and growth of multiple Tamil terrorist groups in Sri Lanka, the Indo – Sri Lanka Agreement resulting in the arrival of IPKF and imposition of the 13th Amendment to our constitution in more recent times, confirmed in the writings of one time Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, JN Dixit. Compelling Sri Lanka to abandon Operation Liberation (Vedamarachchi) which may have ended the civil war in 1987 followed by India’s own Operation Eagle Mission 4 (Poomalai) is a case in point. There are many young persons born after 1987 who are now adults but feel no differently to their elders who lived through such ignominies. Key to this situation is India’s continued involvement in Sri Lanka’s national question. It may be argued, India of late has played a more subdued role. Nevertheless, the constant appeals by local Tamil leaders, the patient hearing given to them by Indian leaders including Prime Minister Modi and the perceived adjudicator role being played by India contributes to the theory of interference. Sri Lanka is a small island comprising of 65.5 thousand square miles and a population of less than 21 million inhabitants. Yet, India has diplomatic representations in Colombo, Kandy, Jaffna and Hambantota besides numerous cultural centers. It has only three offices in London, Birmingham and Edinburg despite an Indian community in excess of 1 million living in UK. Most Sri Lankans view such acts by India with extreme distrust. Voting against Sri Lanka repeatedly during several UNHRC sessions despite its stated policy of not voting on country specific issues is yet another sour point. India’s total lack of interest in resolving the issue of South Indian fishermen poaching in Sri Lanka’s Northern waters is confirmation of Indian high handedness when dealing with Sri Lanka. Whether called hard power or soft power, it is a projection of Indian muscle power.
The volume of bilateral trade, which stood at USD 4.6 billion in 2014 is heavily in favor of India. Indian share amounted to USD 4 billion as opposed to Sri Lanka’s share of USD 600 million. Sri Lanka’s small size and inability to produce / manufacture any item in required numbers to meet the demand of the huge Indian market is a factor. That is the very reason India should not brow beat Sri Lanka to purchase Indian helicopters and other such items, especially when more suitable and cost effective alternatives are available elsewhere. The import by the thousands, of inferior motor vehicles made in India such as the ‘Alto’ brand, not marketed anywhere else in the world, contributes substantially to the imbalance.
ST lamented of inordinate delays faced by Indian private sector firms due to Environmental Impact Assessment regulations which according to him, are applied on Indian firms. A leading local biscuit manufacturer once narrated to this writer of having invested in a biscuit manufacturing plant in India only to close it down after a few years. They found Indian regulations and bureaucracy impossible to work with. Several exporters from Sri Lanka complain of inordinate delays ranging from two to three weeks in clearing consignments at Indian ports such as Chennai and Mumbai due to various bureaucratic impediments. Matters are further aggravated due to long periods transporting cleared goods to large cities, due to poor transport logistics. These periods in transit at times drastically reduce a product’s shelf life thus negatively impacting a possible sale which results in financial losses. Suffice to state, problems are faced by exporters in both sides of the divide.
Far from the role of security provider for littoral and neighboring states, it’s intimidating attitude has earned India, the coveted title of Regional Bully. India should think deep and hard of reasons for joint Nepal China military exercises last week, attended by the Chinese Minister of Defense himself. Indian meddling in Nepal’s constitution making on behalf of the Madeshi community having close ties to people in India, is a duplication of the Indian involvement in Sri Lanka.
India would do well to concentrate on the big picture, that of securing its security through friendly relations with its neighbors. On the other hand, if it persists on its current course of meddling in the internal affairs of neighboring countries related to minority communities with ties in India, it might choke of the strangle of its oceanic neck by a Chinese ‘string of pearls’, despite the claimed thick neck.
To conclude, to apply ST’s own words during the Oxford Union debate, the ability to acknowledge a wrong that has been done, to simply say sorry, will go a far, far, far longer way than all the housing projects, rail tracks and other projects in the form of aid and soft loans. What is required is an apology and accepting the principle that reparations are owed for the billions lost during nearly three decades of civil war. Only then could we think of walking forward, hand in hand.
Meanwhile, the leaders of Sri Lanka should take the polite yet unmistakable caveat carried by Dr Tharoor to heart and effect course correction before it is too late.