Thursday, December 2, 2021
View PointSri Lanka’s U-turn shouldn’t shock India

Sri Lanka’s U-turn shouldn’t shock India

Published: 8th Feb 2021 10:54 pm

The more India keeps harping on Tamil aspirations, the more Sri Lanka is going to hit back. This is the new but ugly reality. Not understanding this changed equation in the new South Asia can only be deemed a pity. The Indian establishment took a sage decision many years ago that it will not pursue megaphone diplomacy. This in effect meant that if and when it had genuine concerns about happenings in a neighbouring country, it will convey them quietly so as not to offend another’s sensibilities.

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This move followed India’s repeated even if well meant loud and noisy hectoring to Sri Lanka (to take one example) during the 1980s and 90s on how to deal with the Tamils, sections of who were violent secessionists. It did not pay dividends; on the other hand, it created tremendous ill-will for India in Sri Lanka. By the time the LTTE was crushed, India had changed tracks but the damage had been done.

Inclusive Outlook

It is in this background that we need to study Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s public appeal during his visit to Colombo last month on how Sri Lanka should have an “inclusive political outlook” for ethnic harmony.

Sri Lankans hate to be admonished by New Delhi on matters they think others have no right to speak about. More so when the country seemingly looking down upon them (this is how they see it) is one which patronised the Tamil Tigers and other Tamil militant groups when they waged a violent war against Sri Lanka.

Will India accept it in a gentleman manner if any country were to suggest how New Delhi should deal with its minorities? Does India have a large heart to accept the criticism pouring in from abroad on how it must act with its farmers?

We deny the other the right to speak on subjects we feel are “domestic issues”. But we refuse to grant the same privilege to other countries, particularly the smaller ones in our neighbourhood. We may argue that India is not commenting on an “internal matter” of Sri Lanka because it is talking about ethnic well-being but that view has few takers in Sri Lanka today.

No Right

Sri Lankans say (whether you agree or not is another matter) that there was a time when they reluctantly digested whatever India hectored because they had no choice and also because the India of then did practice inclusiveness at home and so probably had a right to ask others to do the same as well. That respect for India is gone in South Asia, Sri Lanka included.

So when Jaishankar tells Sri Lankans that Colombo cannot renege on the 13th amendment to the constitution, which arose as a consequence to the 1987 India-Sri Lanka peace agreement that was thrust on that country, it produces negative reactions. More so when the majority in that country has already decided, rightly or wrongly, that it wants to dump the accord which led to Indian military intervention.

“It is in Sri Lanka’s own interests that the expectations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace and dignity within a united Sri Lanka are fulfilled,” Jaishankar had said. “That applies equally to the commitments made by the Sri Lankan government on meaningful devolution, including the 13th amendment to the constitution.”

Sri Lanka’s U-turn

Today’s Sri Lanka

That Sri Lanka remains a divided society on more counts than just ethnicity is a fact. But today’s Sri Lanka is not the old Sri Lanka which limped alone, with no one to weigh against giant neighbour India. Less than a month after Jaishankar asserted that India was open to strengthening its friendship with Sri Lanka, Colombo simply scrapped an agreement signed by the previous regime with India and Japan to develop the East Container Terminal (ECT) at the Colombo port, fully knowing that the investing company from India would be one headed by a friend of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. That the Sri Lankan President and the Prime Minister have offered India a chance to develop the West Container Terminal (WCT) is another matter.
This is not to claim that the ECT project would have remained if Jaishankar had not spoken up. The opposition to India’s involvement in ECT has been lingering for long. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa wield the same political authority in Sri Lanka which Modi does in India. If they desired, they could have changed the course of the objection to the Indian involvement. They clearly did not want to. And the Rajapaksas are simply not interested in listening any more from India on how to deal with the Tamils.

Sri Lanka has already deferred elections to the provincial councils, which were an outcome of the 1987 India-Sri Lanka agreement, citing the Covid-19 pandemic. This could be a first step towards moving away from the 13th amendment.

On the other side, Tamils still sympathetic to the LTTE have contempt for India. Among the other Tamils, some who were cold-shouldered by India are with the Sri Lankan government, which they see as a better passport to success. A section of Tamils who took on the LTTE has been marginalised by the Tigers or India or Sri Lanka. New Delhi’s waning influence in Colombo is so glaring that it can be ignored only by the intellectually blind.

(The author is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)

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