By Ameer Ali –
In a trilogy of lectures delivered by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2020, he described India as a civilizational state. And in a recent interview given to the You Tube channel Swarajya, the Tamil Nadu BJP chief K. Annamalai mentioned that Modi called Sri Lanka one of, and obviously junior, the civilizational twins. Continuing that theme BJP chief pointed out that in Modi’s thinking, India’s largesse to Sri Lanka during the current economic crisis, is a “civilizational duty”.
As part of his civilizational twist, Modi also decided to exhibit to the world, India’s Buddhist past and announced in that regard to inaugurate India’s world-class digital library on Buddhism. The fact that he invited a group of Buddhist monks from Sri Lanka to the opening ceremony of Kushinagar airport was also to promote thus Buddhist image. However, in reality, all this is part of India’s reimaged geostrategic power game in which Buddhism and Sri Lanka would take the centre stage.
To comprehend Modi’s added urgency to prioritize Indo-Lankan relations after 2020 one must go back to the years immediately following 2009 when the Sri Lankan army won the separatist war and eliminated Prabakaran and his LTTE. In that war, India, in the words of Shivshankar Menon, a former Ambassador to Sri Lanka, “chose to find a middle way between them, to try to satisfy both, in the event not satisfying fully either” (Shivshankar Menon, Choices: The Making of India’s Foreign Policy, 2016, Brookings Institution Press, Penguin, p. 103). In reality of course India’s neutrality was tactical to betray the Tamils for LLTE’s madness in assassinating Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. That neutrality freed Sri Lankan government from worrying about the Indian quarter. But what happened after that was the problem. India ignored the post-war development needs of the island, and that neglect left no alternative for the Rajapaksa regime to look to China for assistance. Under the Rajapaksa regime, China’s One-Belt-One-Road with its subway, China-Pakistan-Sri Lanka-Economic Corridor, became Colombo’s highway to Beijing (Ameer Ali, “Delhi’s Choice & Colombo’s Highway to Beijing”, Colombo Telegraph, June 10, 2021) to seek assistance. India’s neglect was a blessing in disguise to China. China was only too willing to step in and become Sri Lanka’s inseparable economic, diplomatic and even security partner to the chagrin of its regional rival and annoyance of a declining superpower, the US. China’s economic link with Sri Lanka goes back to the Mao era. It was this closeness with China that annoyed US and provoked the former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to call China a “predator friend” of Asian nations when he visited Colombo in October 2020.
Between India’s indifference and China’s willingness to aid Sri Lanka is an inconvenient truth, which continues to bedevil Indo-Lanka relations even today. There is a historically nurtured anti-Indian feeling or Indophobia within certain quarters of the Sri Lankan society. That feeling has a medieval origin, from the Tamil invasions of South India’s Pallava and Chola rulers. After independence however, that animosity was enlivened in the wake of the political controversy over the Tamils demand for federalism. Sihala nationalists warned the government and Sinhala people of grave consequences were federalism to be conceded. The proximity of a heavily Tamil populated state to the south of India and a Tamil populated north in Sri Lanka was always reckoned by Sinhala nationalism as permanent danger to the sovereignty of the island. That Indophobia went through an acute phase during the civil war. For instance, when the Indian air force airdropped food parcels in 1987 to the beleaguered Tamils in the north, the then President JR Jayewardene did not have any qualms in condemning that act as an outright invasion. Later, it was sheer Indophobia that provoked a Sri Lankan naval cadet to attack Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi during the guard of honour given to him in Colombo the same year.
Even after defeating the separatists and triumphantly celebrating that victory, anti-Indianness did not die. One incident where it played a key role was when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa visited New Delhi in 2020. There he promised the Indian Prime minister that GR would implement the India inspired 13th amendment to the constitution to bring about a solution to the Tamil problem. Alas! when the president returned home, the first thing he did was to renege on that promise, arguing that there was no popular support to that measure. Later, when the government signed a contract with India and Japan to allow India’s Adani Group to build and operate the East Container Terminal in Colombo Harbour there were massive protests from trade unionists, Bhikkhus and nationalists, allegedly at the instigation of China. That opposition ultimately forced the government to withdraw that contract unilaterally. And, most recently, in March this year, the same Indophobia was at play against the deal signed with the Adani Group again to set up two renewable energy projects in Mannar and Pooneryn. In short, the anti-Indian feeling in Sri Lanka and particularly within the Sinhalese community is a constant that refuses to go away.
It is in this background that one should decipher the real motives behind Modi’s civilizational twist. India’s security interest lies in dragging the island away from China and closer into India’s geostrategic orbit. Therefore, to provide a Buddhist frame to this strategic venture seems to be a tactical enticement to Sri Lanka with a view to win the hearts and minds of its Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists. The current economic crisis is a fortuitous event and manna from heaven to achieve this ultimate objective and to counter China’s penetration into India’s southern waters. Therefore, Modi government’s largesse to help Sri Lanka’s economic recovery is not without a price. For Sri Lanka on the other hand, economic situation is so dire, its government is ready to receive help even from the devil. Under the civilizational twist, India is speedily recompensing the losses from its past neglect.
Victims of Modi’s Twist
The victims of this new relationship are the two Sri Lankan minorities, Tamils and Muslims. Modi’s anti-Muslim agenda is well known. To him and his BJP, only a dead Muslim is a true Muslim. Therefore, at least to the Islamophobes of Sri Lanka, Modi and his BJP foot soldiers are friendly allies. But what about the Tamils?
If the Tamil leadership in this country still expects Modi’s India to pressure Sri Lankan government to implement the 13th Amendment, that leadership should be living in a fool’s paradise. The larger interest of India and the realpolitik behind it dictate New Delhi to confine the 13th Amendment issue to the rhetoric arena. Modi himself being a rabid Hindu ethno-nationalist is better placed to understand the thoughts and sentiments of his Sinhala Buddhist counterparts in Sri Lanka. It is time for Tamil leadership to forget India, defenestrate this amendment and work for an all-inclusive and permanent solution to the problems of all minorities in the country. An awakened young generation of Sinhala Buddhists with its demand for systemic change promises that possibility.
However, one cannot ignore how China is going to react to India’s rejuvenated benevolence towards Sri Lanka. China is also opening its purse in competition with its contender. It has expressed its willingness to work through IMF to restructure Sri Lanka’s foreign debt and promises more direct economic help. At the same time however, it is interesting to note that Beijing is also opening a Tamil window facing the country’s north and east. The visits by the Chinese ambassador and his entourage to the famous Kandasamy Temple at Nallur in the north to offer puja, followed by another visit to Batticaloa recently with food packages and discussion with Tamil notables there about bringing inter-ethnic amity to develop the region, smell a rat. Why this sudden interest in Tamil areas? To extend this observation further, one should not be surprised to see sometime in the future China discussing with members of Tamil diaspora also regarding issues affecting Sri Lankan Tamil community. Earlier, when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was in New York, he promised UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres that he would meet members of Tamil diaspora for a discussion, but he never did. So, what if China meets them?
Assistance at What price?
Indo-China rivalry in the Indian Ocean has currently taken an altruistic phase in Sri Lanka. The country is trapped in a desperate situation where it cannot afford to be choosy in receiving aid from the two rivals. But what would be promised to the benefactors in return for their largesse is not known. There is no free lunch in this world. Also, one should not forget that it was during the Yahapalana government with Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister that China was given the 99-year lease over Hambantota harbour as part of debt settlement. He is now the Prime Minister heading the so-called All-Party Government, and GR seems to have given him a free hand to rebuild the economy. With all the assistance and advice from friendly governments and international institutions it may take optimistically two to three years at least to come out of the woods. However, if the price paid for this revival going to be too heavy, Sri Lanka would emerge at the end with its sovereignty compromised substantially. That would be the price paid for seven decades of failure to build a nation out of a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. It is also the price for self-inflicted ruination of the economy.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, Murdoch Business School, Murdoch University, Western Australia