When we were in Geneva in the dark days of March, I was surprised to read that Senior Minister D E W Gunasekara had been appointed Acting Minister of External Affairs. It was only long after I got back to Colombo that I realized it was an excellent choice, and the Acting Minister’s clear vision and determination had avoided what might have contributed to further catastrophe.
One of the heartening aspects of the aftermath of the vote was continuation of good relations between India and Sri Lanka. Personally I believe India did the wrong thing in voting against us, and I think we must engage in private with Delhi and show the possible unfortunate consequences of that vote for India and the region as well as for us. But it was and is essential to avoid recrimination. In addition, while deploring the result, we must look at the reasons that led India to take this fateful step, try to understand the compulsions, remedy whatever shortcomings we might have displayed and ensure that India appreciates the need for continuing positive engagement with us.
By and large both countries have worked hard at maintaining the relationship. The Indian Prime Minister sent a gracious message after the vote, and our politicians have by and large refrained from provocative reactions. Unfortunately there have been some harsh comments about India by journalists who are normally sensible and supportive of the position of the Sri Lankan government, and they should be advised to look at the whole picture rather than particular unpleasant aspects. But on the whole I believe, with the recent generally positive visit of the Indian Parliamentary delegation, and a return soon to the type of diplomacy that confirmed a congruency of interests during the conflict period, we have both avoided what might have been an unpleasant fallout at the time of the vote.
Much of the credit for this goes to Minister D E W Gunasekara. While his patriotism is not at all in doubt, he made it clear when he was Acting Minister that there was no question of blaming India for what was going on. He seems also to have ensured that this approach was followed by all his colleagues in Cabinet, including those who might have been rearing to have a go, as it were, at India. I am not sure whether this was the reason the President took the unusual step of appointing an Acting Minister for just a few days, but I believe the result was admirable, and both countries owe him a lot for ensuring that moderation prevailed.
I say this as someone who has always appreciated the Indian stance towards Sri Lanka, and I believe the recent aberration, though regrettable, is understandable and something we must work to overcome. Similarly, while I think India has behaved very positively towards Sri Lanka throughout the post-Independence period, there was an exception during the early eighties. India itself paid dearly for this, and I believe will not repeat that mistake, but at the same time we too must register the provocation that was offered.
J R Jayewardene and his government were foolishly provocative towards India, and I fear that the United States, which in those days saw India as a surrogate of the Soviet Union, egged him on. Those were the days of oppositional confrontation during the Cold War, and even if President Reagan was not keen to take over Trincomalee, which President Jayewardene was trying to hand over to him, certainly the shenanigans over the Voice of America etc gave India good reason to be worried, and to act against us. The Annexures to the Indo-Lankan Accord, with the safeguards introduced with regard to Trincomalee and Iranawila, make it very clear what the main Indian concerns were at the time, and I believe we should register that, while supporting terrorists was wrong, our own behavior contributed to India acting in what it could claim was a form of self defence.
No such excuse obtains in the present situation, though I fear that those who look at the world in terms of bipolar opposites will be trying to convince India that there are similar dangers. We need to make it clear that that is not the case, and that our historically successful policy of Non-Alignment, with special attention to our neighbours, in the sort of concentric circles that characterize Asian philosophy rather than the othering so dear to the West, will continue with friendship towards all.
Making this point, which D E W Gunasekara could so admirably do, is the more vital given the various interests that are trying to build up hostilities between us and India. There was a deceitful and disgraceful effort to create animosity towards the recent Parliamentary delegation, which was fortunately nipped in the bud by those who had kept Indo-Sri Lankan relations on an even keel during the conflict period, and I believe the present Minister of External Affairs contributed positively too on this occasion. But he himself needs to do more, to actually develop and entrench a policy with regard to our neighbours and other countries, that will be followed by all officials. To allow individuals to engage in snide criticism of India and Indians, as Sarath Fonseka did so many years back, is unacceptable, and it is worse when it is done conspiratorially, with Sri Lankans willing to engage positively with India also being victims of slander.
In appointing D E W Gunasekara to act, the President I think made his own position clear, and it is that position that must be developed and strengthened. Efforts to throw him off course by continuous sniping must stop, and I think our media policy too must be changed, as far as state outlets are concerned, to avoid narrations that ignore factual reality. Arguing that India acted against its own interests as well as ours in Geneva is one thing, to claim that this is part of continuing hostility is to ignore the vast history of positive engagement and also to ignore areas in which we have shown ourselves both slow and insensitive. While obviously we must place Sri Lankan interests first, we must also realize that those are best served by working together with those who have worked together with us actively in times of difficulty.