By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
Several articles appeared in the local print media prior to Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka at the invitation of GoSL as the chief guest in the celebrations marking 14th UN Veska Day. Most articles, in tone, were not welcoming. A couple of articles last Sunday after Modi’s departure praised him and declared the visit a success.
The STF inspected and occupied buildings located directly opposite Police Park, take off point for Modi’s IAF helicopters, from 5.30 till after 10 am on May 12. There was an inordinate distance between the podium at the Norwood stadium in Dickoya and the steel barriers holding back flag waving Sri Lankans of Indian origin. The usual hand shaking with members of the public and opportunity for selfies was done away. Nothing was left to chance for the display of any spontaneous acts of emotional outrage, similar to the disgraceful episode in 1987. Notwithstanding the mutual back slapping between leaders of the two countries, there was a general lack of enthusiasm for the Indian leader’s visit by the average Sri Lankan.
Some commentators refer to an ‘Indian Phobia’ in Sri Lanka, especially among the Sinhalese community. The word phobia is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as ‘An extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something’. ‘Irrational’ in turn is defined as ‘Not logical or reasonable’.
Indo – Sri Lanka relations were at a low ebb ever since a Chinese submarine was permitted bunkering facilities in Colombo in late 2014. President Rajapaksa was voted out of office a few months later in January 2015. Since then, with four visits to India by President Sirisena, three by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and two visits to Sri Lanka by Prime Minister Modi since January 2015, relations at state level have rarely seen better days.
Sri Lankans are not alone in fearing its big neighbor. Small nations around US, Russia and China have similar fears. Small nations around Germany privately dreaded a unified Germany. It serves no purpose going back to invasions from across the Palk Strait in previous millennia. However, a brief synopsis of India’s heavy handed handling of neighborhood relations since independence in August 1947 warrants mention.
India and Pakistan have fought wars of 1947, 1965, 1971 and 1999. India was instrumental in the dismemberment of former East Pakistan, modern day Bangladesh. India justified its role due to the exodus of 10 million East Pakistani refugees to India. Goa, considered a part of metropolitan Portugal as India did not exist at the time of occupation, was acquired in 1961 in a military operation. Calls for a referendum and UN mediation was rejected. In 1975, after years of building up support, Sikkim was annexed to India after the Indian army laid siege to the Chogyal’s (Ruler) palace. In the 1980s, Nepal experienced economic chaos as a result of requesting to be treated fairly. The dispute on the Trade & Transit Treaty came to a head in 1988 when India imposed an economic blockade which lasted until mid-1990. Nepal’s GDP growth rate plummeted from 9.7% in 1988 to 1.5% in 1989. In more recent times, India involved itself in Nepal’s constitution making project and is suspect of having a hand in the fall of former Prime Minister Oli’s government.
In 1987, India forced itself into Sri Lanka after aiding and abetting separatist terrorists for a decade. India’s complicity was confirmed by one time Prime Minister VP Singh in an affidavit (7.9) he submitted to the Jain Commission on November 05, 1996 investigating the Rajiv Gandhi assassination.
The absence of diplomatic relations between Bhutan and its northern neighbor China, indicates a heavy Indian influence over Bhutan’s foreign affairs. As recently as June 2015, Indian troops stormed into Myanmar in pursuit of terrorists. Myanmar, a sovereign nation, was informed of the entry of Indian troops into its territory as the operation was underway.
It need be stated, Sri Lanka has only one major foreign policy issue. That is India. The need to maintain close and friendly relations with India is a given fact. The need to act at all times, with due consideration to Indian concerns for the security of its southern sea board at all times too is a given imperative. This needs to be handled with utmost care, by professionals.
However, it cannot be a one-way street either. Reciprocity and mutual respect is the apotheosis and corner stone for close and friendly relations.
Notwithstanding the cordial relations at state level, a serious trust deficit prevails among ordinary Sri Lankans, especially among the 70% majority community. Local sentiments is not a phobia which is irrational but a fear and resentment based on recent Indian interventions and attitudes, considered hegemonistic, from the perspective of ordinary Sri Lankans. It is both rational and understandable. Most have no idea of India’s military adventures nor its covert operations in neighbouring countries. But they are conscious of the role played by India in Sri Lanka since late 1970s. Even assistance given at the tail end of the conflict to combat LTTE terrorism was largely negated by India repeatedly voting against Sri Lanka at UNHRC a few years ago.
The ordinary Sri Lankan does not appreciate the dialogue between the Indian leadership and Tamil leaders of Sri Lankan and Indian origin. Prime Minister Modi and high officials visiting Sri Lanka meet with Tamil National Alliance, Tamil Progressive Alliance and Ceylon Workers Congress leaders regularly, huddled inside the Indian High Commission in Colombo. When the TNA leader who is also Leader of Opposition claims, he requested Modi to intervene and mediate between the two leaders of the unity government, it does not help India’s case either. This will be detrimental to aid reconciliation. Nor does visiting Heads of State and Governments addressing public gatherings make a difference in political terms. Modi addressing public rallies in Jaffna in 2015 and in Dickoya a few days ago of audiences predominantly from the two Tamil communities does nothing to allay fears of those in whose minds, Indian intervention on behalf of the same Tamil persons of Sri Lankan origin is anything but forgotten. It has not escaped their attention, a substantial part of Indian aid and assistance has been for the benefit of mostly one particular community in mostly one part of the country. Even though Sri Lanka, at this juncture must be happy with whatever aid it receives in whichever part of the country, it is not the perspective of the average person. The need for four Indian representation offices in a country as small as Sri Lanka rightly or wrongly adds fuel to suspicions of meddling in internal affairs. India has only three representation offices in UK to manage its affairs in that country and the welfare of a million strong Indian diaspora. These are some factors which manifest into anti-Indian feelings.
The transformation of cordial relations between leaders into tangible results is hampered chiefly due to fears and resentment among a large number of Sri Lankans. ETCA, despite its many benefits, is opposed by professionals for their own selfish reasons and the Joint Opposition for political reasons. The Trincomalee oil tank farm project is opposed by CPC Trade Unions. In addition, there is no stomach for either project by the common man as well, which is due to wide spread anti-Indian feelings. On the eve of Modi’s visit, Colombo based Indian journalist PK Balachandran stated in a dispatch, “A deep and growing resentment is palpable in Sri Lanka over India’s pushy bid to establish its presence in the island to counter China’s moves to find a foot hold here.”
What is required is a hearts and minds project to win over the large number of Sri Lankans harbouring anti-Indian feelings. C Raj Mohan, Director of Carnegie India, in a recent article wrote “Above all, Delhi must address the deep sense of national hurt in Colombo that has arisen from India’s intervention in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs over recent decades.” Raj Mohan has understood the problem.
Prime Minister Modi could best kick start such a project. His address at the BMICH International Vesak Day celebrations on May 12 was a sadly missed golden opportunity. “Let us look more within; and let us uphold nothing else but the truth” could have been supplemented with something on the lines of a general reference to mistakes made in the past. A call to let bygones be bygones and the two nations to forge ahead, with the knowledge such mistakes would not recur could easily have been the beginning of a healing process. It would have better resonated with the purpose of the visit, Vesak celebrations apart, than the mantra that emanated from Prime Ministers Modi’s lips of “whether it is on land or in the waters of Indian Ocean, the security of our societies is indivisible” which could contain several meanings and add to the subtlety of the dichotomy espoused.
President Xi Jinping, in his opening address during the One Belt One Road initiative emphatically stated “China will not interfere in the internal affairs of any country”.
Would Prime Minister Modi emulate such a magnanimous undertaking to foster friendly relationship with Sri Lanka and India’s other neighbors or is it an opportunity missed? It would have also been meaningful to win more hearts and minds than all the ambulances promised by Prime Minister Modi to the remaining seven provinces.