By Rajiva Wijesinha –
In the period leading up to the victory over the terrorist Tigers of Tamil Eeelam in 2009, India and Sri Lanka enjoyed an excellent relationship. It was clear that, despite the opposition of politicians in Tamilnadu, India was supportive of the military initiatives of the Sri Lankan government. More importantly, it assisted Sri Lanka in dealing effectively with the efforts of some Western countries to stop the Sri Lankan offensive, and then to condemn it after the military success of May 2009. This was most obvious in Geneva, where the Indian Permanent Representative, together with his Pakistani counterpart, comprised the negotiating team that accompanied the Sri Lankan Permanent Representative, Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, into discussions with Western nations that had wanted a resolution critical of Sri Lanka.
Since then the relationship deteriorated. In 2012 India voted in favour of a resolution put forward by the United States that was strongly critical of the Sri Lankan government. And though much aid and assistance was given to Sri Lanka for reconstruction after the war, India seems to feel that this is not properly appreciated – as evinced by recent remarks by the Indian High Commissioner.
Conversely, a response to his speech in a Sri Lankan newspaper displays even great angst, culminating in the complaint that ‘In the more recent past, India repeatedly voted against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC in Geneva whereas in view of India’s domestic political constraints, all India had to do was abstain which Sri Lanka would have appreciated immensely.’ Before that there had been a catalogue of the support offered in the eighties by India to terrorist movements in India.
That support is a fact, and India must recognize not only the damage done to Sri Lanka by its support for terrorists in the eighties, but also the continuing exploitation of that support by forces in Sri Lanka that I would describe as racist. But Sri Lanka too must recognize that those actions were committed thirty years ago, and also that there were reasons for India to behave as it did. Though I think it is important to affirm the moral principle that assistance to terrorists is totally beyond the pale, we have to understand that India felt threatened at the time by the hostility evinced by the United States during the Cold War period.
When the government of President J R Jayewardene abandoned Sri Lanka’s traditional policies of Non-Alignment and close understanding with India, to the extent of offering facilities in Sri Lanka to a country that made no secret that India was the principal target of its military adventurism in the Indian Ocean, India reacted aggressively. As your current Deputy National Security Adviser, Mr Gupta, put it succinctly, though such a response was not justifiable, it was understandable.
This was in the context of an attempt by one of his subordinates at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Analysis to defend Indian support for terrorists. I appreciated Mr Gupta’s forthrightness at the time, and I believe this should be shared by Indian analysts of the current relationship. At the same time it is even more important that Sri Lankan analysts, such as they are because we do not have a tradition of intellectual rigidity, recognize the seminal damage done to the relationship by the adventurism of the then Sri Lankan government.
The current Sri Lankan government must also recognize that today, thirty years later, India might be worried by what seems total commitment to China. I do not think this is what China wants, and I do not think any serious thinker in Sri Lanka would argue that the relationship with China must be developed with no regard for Indian sensitivities. But sadly Sri Lanka currently has no coherent foreign policy, and the practices and pronouncements of many of those in positions of influence create the impression that we are putting all our eggs into the China basket. This impression is fuelled by the United States, ironically so, given that in the eighties it saw China as a tool to be used against its great enemy at the time, the Soviet Union, with which India was closely allied.
Jayewardene was foolish in the eighties to assume that the United States would take on India in support of Sri Lanka if hostilities developed. But given the oppositional approach of the West at the time, his optimism is not entirely incomprehensible. Now however, given China’s clear advice that India should not be alienated, our leaders have no excuse for their myopia. But given the greed of those who wish to do business for profit, and the understandable determination of Chinese companies to do business where profits can be maximized, we are in grave danger of sacrificing our sovereignty.
In the eighties, India was worried about what seemed the determination of the Jayewardene government to allow the United States even military use of Trincomalee, whilst also giving broadcasting facilities to the Voice of America. Now, the sheer stupidity of those who have handed over ownership of prime land to foreign business interests, whilst merrily mortgaging assets for years to come, naturally rouses suspicions. The recent inconsistencies with regard to alienation of land suggest that Sri Lanka is a victim of its own internal confusions, rather than deliberate policy, but the adverse impact of incoherence is no less real.
This I think underlines High Commissioner Sinha’s recording of the grants India has given, which are not publicized much, whereas Chinese assistance, most of it in the form of loans, is presented as arising from goodwill alone. Yet India should realize that expressions of gratitude are also in line with the perception that China has never let us down internationally, whereas India has sided with those who have made no secret of their opposition to our victory over terrorism.
In the next section of this paper I will look at the political compulsions that led to the Indian vote going against us in 2012 and 2013 in Geneva. Though I believe India was wrong to ally itself with those it had helped defeat in 2009, there were reasons for the vote which Sri Lanka must examine, with a view to doing more to help India help us in the future. But before moving on to that, let me stress the need to better bind India and Sri Lanka together economically too, a process that can only be of mutual benefit.
A major problem is this regard is that the Free Trade agreement that was prepared some years back has not as yet been signed. Problems arose when some Sri Lankan investors felt hard done by because of adverse rulings by state officials in terms of the previous less comprehensive agreement. Though obviously the suspicions that arose require more careful analysis, I cannot help feeling that greater sensitivity on the part of India with regard to interpretation would have helped to reduce suspicions that Sri Lanka, a naturally much weaker state economically, was being exploited.
Though the worries of Sri Lankan businessmen should be assuaged, I should note that the major impediment to both the Free Trade Agreement, and better political understanding, is the hostility to India felt by a few officials in Sri Lanka. The most extreme of these is now our Foreign Secretary, who tried in 2012 to set the President against your current Foreign Minister. The President wanted, after he had been told by her that Mrs Sushma Swaraj, as Head of a Parliamentary delegation to Sri Lanka, had been negative about him, to cancel a scheduled meeting. Though the Secretary to the President averted this potential disaster, there was no follow up action, and I fear the tendency to make relations with India worse has continued.
Thus we have not only failed to live up to commitments made to India, but these have been repudiated when enunciated by Indian officials. In 2012 there was no response to a letter seeking clarification, sent by the Indian Prime Minister. At the same time Sri Lanka ignored a request by India not to publicize a commitment to support us in Geneva, and Sri Lanka has failed to investigate the blunder on our part and its impact on Indian policy, satisfying itself rather with blaming India for changing its stance. We seem out of touch with reality, and I feel that this is as much a result of policy on the part of individuals as of a lack of professionalism, inasmuch as Sri Lankan officials who have tried to report the actual situation in Delhi believe that what they say does not get through to the President. Indeed, even recently, there were bland communiqués about what transpired at meetings between the President and the new Indian Prime Minister, and there is no capacity to analyse interactions and work out how best to proceed to strengthen the relationship.
So the very clear message given by the new Indian Prime Minister, when he met our President at his inauguration, and more recently in New York, is not taken seriously. To my mind India has consistently asked for implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which came about as a result of the Indo-Lankan Accord of 1987. Though the newspaper article I mentioned refers to that Amendment as an imposition by India, Sri Lanka must acknowledge that it has been part of our Constitution for over quarter of a century, and our present President has pledged its full implementation, and indeed has indicated that he is prepared to go further.
My own view is that the 13th Amendment is deeply flawed, but there can be no question of rolling it back. Indeed I would agree that we need to go further in terms of devolution, since it is clear that government needs to improve mechanisms for consultation of the people and providing better responses to their needs. However I can also see that devolution should not impinge on national security, and this is an even more important consideration now than in the eighties, given the trend in recent years to split up countries. To put it bluntly, whereas until the eighties Federalism was a system to bind countries together whilst allowing for different priorities in different component sections, now Federalism seems a way of entrenching internal boundaries that can then turn into international ones. I should note that India too is well aware of this tendency, and recognizes the need to guard against this. Obviously it would make sense for our two countries to work together in this regard, and I hope we can overcome current suspicions and promote cooperation, given that we could both become victims of the current simplistic solution, of bifurcation for all differences, which is now employed by dominant forces in the international community.
In this regard the biggest blunder in the Indo-Lankan Accord, which the Liberal Party pointed out in 1987 even while welcoming the commitment to devolution, was the possible merger of the Northern and the Eastern Provinces. That immediately changed devolution from a system to bring government closer to the people to a mechanism for entrenching the idea of different ‘homelands’.
The merger, which was accomplished through sleight of hand by President Jayewardene, was dissolved by the Courts a few years ago. At the time President Mahinda Rajapaksa expressed his willingness, since the danger of separatism seemed averted, to devolve all powers enjoined by the Constitution, including police ones. My own view is that, following the victory over the LTTE in 2009, he should have proceeded with this. I gather that the Secretary of Defence, who is now seen as a hardliner opposed to devolution, was then in favour of this. However subsequent events have created tremendous diffidence, so there is need of concerted effort now to overcome this, to ensure Sri Lanka fulfils its commitments whilst also creating confidence that separatist machinations will not revive, and revive with them the sufferings of the last few decades.
In this regard I believe India should make it crystal clear, whilst promoting the constitutional provisions agreed upon in the interests of greater responsiveness to people’s needs, that the merger must be forgotten. And it should also encourage government to empower people more fully (the 13 plus that the President of Sri Lanka pledged, on his own) through greater powers to local government bodies. After all, when the Indo-Lankan Accord was signed, India had not introduced the Panchayat system. Developing a similar system in Sri Lanka, with greater accountability in small units that will take care of basic needs, will overcome the neglect endemic in excessive centralization, whilst also avoiding similar neglect by Provincial administrations that have limited understanding of local issues and problems.
At the same time India should encourage the Sri Lankan government to move on reforms that present no threat. Unfortunately there is a general tendency to view constitutional reform as a package, with agreement on and implementation of reforms in some areas to be avoided since that could lead to complacence so that other reforms will be forgotten. But the positive impact of say a Second Chamber of Parliament, where the Provinces could have a greater say in National issues, would be tremendous. So too a reduction in the size of the Cabinet would reduce the tendency to entrench all decision making at the Centre, given that an excess of Ministers means an excess of petty Caesars who cannot let well alone.
It is obviously the responsibility of Sri Lanka to move on political reform, and the failure to think about the issues I have mentioned above is culpable. But India must also realize the limitations Sri Lanka had imposed on itself by excessive politicization of all aspects of society. The education system has been moribund for years, satisfied with good statistics as to basic education which we have had for decades, in contrast to the rest of South Asia: we have therefore ignored the fact that we have fallen back in Science and Technology, and also in the capacity to assess political and social realities and plan and put through essential reforms. To put it bluntly, Sri Lanka has no think tanks, except for the Institute of Policy Studies, the exception that proves the rule. Unfortunately its expertise is in the field of economics. Though it has done yeoman service with regard to promoting more enlightened trade policies, the absence of a political equivalent has meant that the socio-political arguments for reform have no traction.
And sadly Sri Lanka has practically canonized the idea that planning is a luxury that a country in need of rapid development cannot afford. Despite an excellent paper from the Secretary to the Ministry of Policy Planning and Implementation, sent in late 2009 to the Secretary to the President, suggesting an enhanced role for that Ministry, it was abolished after the election of April 2010. So, as in the field of Human Rights, another Ministry that was abolished, its tasks being entrusted to the Ministry of External Affairs which had neither capacity nor inclination to promote such Rights, we were reduced to lurching from crisis to crisis – a massive airport that has no scheduled flights, excellent connectivity in the North with no corresponding development of Human Resources to take advantage of the infrastructure that had been developed, an excellent Rehabilitation programme for former Combatants with no policy or coherent programmes for Reintegration.
I have long suggested therefore that India should provide support for thinking about Sri Lankan issues. I have suggested to the High Commissioner that he should convene meetings of Sri Lankan Ministers responsible for service delivery, to discuss structural changes that would enhance responsiveness to local needs. The UN has commissioned an excellent paper from a retired Sri Lankan official but there seems little interest in taking things forward. A spur to executive action is needed, but given the top heavy nature of decision making in Sri Lanka, and the excessive responsibilities, which preclude innovation, of the few key officials who make decisions, this will have to come from outside.
I do not mean by this either intervention or imposition. But allowing innate Sri Lankan abilities and ideas to function more freely does require opportunities for discussion and interaction, and also the injection of awareness of best practices elsewhere. India, which like us moved from statism and socialism to a mixed economy, managed to avoid the crony capitalism that we allowed to develop in the eighties, and which is now stifling equitable development in Sri Lanka. India also established centres of educational excellence, and never abandoned English medium education so that its capacity to interact on equal terms with the world has increased, whereas ours has declined steadily over the last few decades.
India has helped in some of these areas, but it has done so only through state to state interventions, which have not been productive. I would submit then that India needs to help us think outside the box. A few workshops that involve Sri Lankan decision makers as well as thinkers could lead to position papers that will help government move on reforms. A blueprint could be produced for educational support, that goes beyond the present training of English teachers who then have no impact on the system. There should be guidelines to promote Indian investment that will also lead to technology transfers and training, so that our human resources can develop. And above all there should be a blueprint for devolution that will satisfy as many desires as possible whilst ensuring that concerns are taken care of and no elements should feel insecure. This latter will not be difficult to achieve, and is more important than satisfying desires, which will have to be limited by the fears that naturally are felt still by all those involved in the decades long conflict.
*Text of a presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha at the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Kolkata – At an international seminar held on November 6th and 7th 2014 on An Appraisal of India’s Neighbourhood Policy: Way Forward