By Izeth Hussain –
What does the BJP tsunami portend for Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem? I think we should first of all get our perspectives right on certain matters. Narendra Modi may have a ghastly record over the 2002 Gujarat massacre of Muslims, but haven’t there been men of power with even ghastlier records nearer home? In 2002 Modi made an injudicious speech, indeed one showing criminal irresponsibility, which led to anti-Muslim riots resulting in the deaths of 1000, may be more but not more than 2000. But over the years it proved impossible to inculpate him for anything more than that, and he has had a reasonable record in dealing with Muslims. I am not denying that he can justly be regarded as an anti-Muslim racist, Fascist, and a dangerous Hindutva bigot. My point is that we should not demonize him unnecessarily.
Consider by contrast the record of Sri Lankan men of power towards the minorities. Recently the JVP leader, in making an enlightened address to a Muslim gathering, referred to the fact that when 13 soldiers were killed by the LTTE in 1983, the bodies were not returned to their native villages for burial according to established practice, but brought to Colombo where they were buried with much fanfare. That inaugurated the July ’83 holocaust which resulted in the killing of about the same number as in Gujarat, possibly even more, and it inaugurated also the thirty-year war. The consequences were therefore infinitely more horrible than those of the Gujarat massacre. But, unlike in India where Modi had to face charges in Court, there was no attempt in Sri Lanka to inculpate the notorious racist leaders of the time, such as JRJ, Cyril Matthew, Lalith Athulathmudali, and Gamini Dissanayake. They were either directly involved in State terrorism or heartily approved of it. At the level of the people and the civil society there is a striking contrast between Indian activism over the Gujarat massacre and Sri Lankan indifference to July ’83. So, my point is that in dealing with Modi we should begin by assuming that he is just another leader with whom a mutual accommodation of interests should be possible, while bearing in mind the possibility that he could turn out to be a very dangerous person
We should also assume that the fundamentals of Indian policy on Sri Lanka remain unchanged. The fundamentals are these: Sri Lanka by itself can never be a serious threat to India but it could be if it gets together with some powerful foreign country against India, and except in that eventuality nothing would preclude total amity and co-operation without India wanting to dominate Sri Lanka or exercise undue influence in any way. We all know that Indo-Sri Lankan relations went through a very troubled period after 1977 when India believed that JRJ was getting close to the US in a way that could be inimical to India’s legitimate interests. But apart from that – as I can attest from first-hand experience as a diplomat for 35 years – the fundamentals that I have mentioned above applied fully.
I cannot go into details in this article, but I will mention one fact that illustrates those fundamentals. After the Sino-Indian border war in the early sixties the relations between the two countries deteriorated very badly, but the special relationship built up between Sri Lanka and China as a result of the Rubber-Rice Pact of the early ‘fifties continued to flourish, and we continued to maintain very friendly relations with India at the same time. There was no demand, no pressure at all from India to distance ourselves from China. The reason was that there was no military dimension at all to our relations with China, nor was that being threatened. The case was otherwise with the very friendly Sri Lanka-US relations after 1977: it could, at least in theory, have acquired a military dimension in the context of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
But of course there could be other reasons – apart from our ganging up with a foreign power against India – that could spoil our relations with India. The possible establishment of a sphere of influence by India could be one of those other reasons. It is a striking fact that Western countries which had anathematized Modi for years, even refusing him a visa as in the case of the US, have rushed forward to invite him to visit their countries. There could be several reasons for this, including the fact that India is clearly emerging as a great power and Modi, with his Hindutva ultra-nationalism deeply ingrained in him for decades, could well turn out to be anti-Western. Furthermore this potentially dangerous person is going to have his finger on the Indian nuclear trigger. So, common sense would indicate that the West should try to palaver him into good behavior. We must also bear in mind that the Western Governments’ enthusiasm for human rights, unlike that of the Western peoples, is largely though not entirely bogus. Otherwise they would have anathematized JRJ and his brutal racist gang, not Modi, as the former were far more clearly guilty of genocide against a minority.
I believe that the abrupt Western volte-face towards Modi can be best understood by contextualizing it and seeing it in relation to the inevitable emergence of China as a super-power. The West and Russia would like to establish India as a counter-weight to China. In recent times there has been what looks like an over-assertiveness by China in regard to its claims in the South China seas. That could be taken as the sign of a new aggressivity on the part of a young super-giant that is flexing its muscles, or alternatively it could signify a desire to establish a sphere of influence, which is not essentially the expression of an aggressive drive. Likewise I see Russia’s position in Ukraine not as the expression of an aggressive drive but as an attempt to establish an internationally recognized sphere of influence. It has to be expected, in my view, that in a new world order – which is still at an inchoate stage – the new dominant powers will want to establish their spheres of influence. Consequently, if the West wants India as a counter-weight to China, Sri Lanka will come to be regarded as belonging to India’s sphere of influence. That would not necessarily mean that Sri Lanka will be Finlandized – meaning that our foreign policy options will be limited by India – or that we will be subject to Indian hegemony. I believe that we can have as much independence as we want provided we don’t gang up with a foreign power against India. I believe further that China itself will come to recognize Sri Lanka as belonging to India’s sphere of influence.
The BJP tsunami can be seen as part of a global process of retribalisation, of going back to ethnicity as the basis of the nation. It is true that in its election campaign the BJP emphasized economic development and played down the Hindutva ideology, but the tsunami sweep of the election victory shows that the mass of the Indians are not averse to that ideology, while a very substantial proportion enthusiastically support it. In the West the process of retribalisation seems to be a complex phenomenon with a dual focus: a retrogression to ethnicity and a looking outward to a wider unit, a combination of tribalism and universalism. The Scottish nationalists, for instance, would want both an independent Scotland and membership of the EU. This combination of tribalism and universalism seems to have been a characteristic of Scottish nationalism right from its inception, as can be seen in the writings of the great Scots poet Hugh MacDiarmid. But in India the Hindutva ideology represents a retrogression to tribalism without any universalist aspect to it at all. We have seen the identical process at work in Sri Lanka since 2009, where it has wrecked the peace and brought off a masterpiece of ethnolunacy by creating a Muslim ethnic problem. What masterpieces might be wrought in India by the Hindutva ethnolunacy, we can’t tell at the moment.
We have to deal with Modi as with any other leader with whom a mutual accommodation of interests might be possible, but we have to be wary because his record shows that he could be a dangerous person. On the ethnic problem India cannot insist on anything more than 13A, which means that we have to try to reach an understanding on land and police powers. I won’t go into specifics, but emphasize one point in conclusion. The habit that our leaders have of making and breaking promises is something that we Sri Lankans have come to accept as a fatality. But it could be dangerous in the international arena. Modi, we must remember, is not the same as that Oxbridge product, Dr. Manmohan Singh.