On Collision Course With India?

mahinda-and-singh1By Izeth Hussain –

 Izeth Hussain

Our Government could be entering into a collision course with India over the ethnic problem. This is a possibility, indeed a probability, but not a certainty, which is why I have placed a question mark in the title of this article. Before dealing with that question I must make some clarifications arising out of my article “BJP and the SL Ethnic Problem“. In that article I argued that we must begin our relations with the BJP Government on the assumption that the fundamentals of Indian policy towards Sri Lanka remain unchanged: Sri Lanka by itself can pose no threat to India, but it could if it gangs up with certain powers against India, and except for that eventuality nothing precludes excellent Indo-Sri Lankan relations. By way of illustration I pointed to the fact that our relations with India were in general excellent except for a period when India believed that the 1977 Government was ganging up with the US against her.

Probably most Sri Lankans, including those equipped to make informed judgments on international relations, will not agree with my position. They will point out that India has had consistently bad relations with all its neighbours to the north, that in pursuit of total dominance in South Asia it broke up Pakistan, that its refusal to allow self-determination for Kashmir is indefensible, that it showed an expansionist drive by gobbling up Sikkim, that it has kept Bhutan in a satellite status, and that its exceptional relations with Sri Lanka are postulated on the latter being completely at the mercy of India. It is a powerful indictment. Instead of going into details I will point out certain factors that we must take into account if we are to formulate a fair-minded judgment on India’s foreign relations.

India has several neighbours. It is pertinent to recall Kautilya’s definition of enemies and friends. Who is your enemy? The country that is at your frontier. Who is your friend? The country that is at the frontier of the country that is at your frontier. That is not an invariant law, but it describes a disposition, a tendency to react in certain ways. Accordingly, we Sri Lankans tend to view India with suspicion, if not downright hostility, and we tend to regard with a kindly eye India’s northern neighbours, notably Pakistan and China. So if India has troubled relations with its neighbours, that is more or less in the natural order of things, and does not necessarily argue an innate aggressivity. If India has had on the whole better relations with Sri Lanka, perhaps part of the explanation is to be found in the Palk Straits. That narrow stretch of water serves the principle that Good fences make good neighbours. It is pertinent to recall that imperial powers usually sought to establish buffer zones, such as Afghanistan and Thailand, so as to avoid eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations with other imperial powers.

But far and away the most important factor that explains why India’s relations with Sri Lanka have on the whole been better than with its northern neigbours arises out of the unalterable facts of geography. India’s northern neighbours include China, an emerging super-power with whom Pakistan and the others can get together in a balancing game against India. That option is not open to Sri Lanka as it is a tiny island without any powerful immediate neighbour with whom it can get together to counter-balance India. It might therefore seem that Sri Lanka is peculiarly vulnerable and can bemoan its fate along the lines of former Mexican dictator Profirio Diaz: “Poor Mexico. So far from God and so close to the United States.” But our isolation can also be seen as conferring on us a very special advantage. I pointed out in my earlier article that Sri Lanka could have excellent relations with both India and China at the same time while Sino-Indian relations were very unsatisfactory, and that that was possible because our relations with China had no military dimension whatever. But Nepal did not have the latitude available to Sri Lanka in building up relations with China: the construction of a road in Nepal by the Chinese was seen by India as having a sinister strategic significance. On the other hand, the Chinese can construct any amount of roads in Sri Lanka without the Indians detecting in that any strategic significance. The difference is one of geography: because of the China factor India has a greater sense of insecurity about what goes on in the north than in the south.

This situation is now changing. Traditionally India had its center of gravity in the north, modern India in Delhi, and its security preoccupations concerned possible invasions from the north, not from the south. Consequent to the post-1956 removal of the British base in Trinco and the adoption by Sri Lanka of a bi-partisan Non-Aligned foreign policy, India had no cause at all to have security preoccupations about Sri Lanka. That situation changed after 1970 when the US established a base in Diego Garcia. It meant that for the first time in its history the India that had its centre of gravity in the north started having security preoccupations about the south. Sri Lanka mooted the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace, a project that if implemented would allow India a position of pre-eminence, indeed of dominance, in the Indian Ocean, and India secured for itself a predominant position in the Maldives. In recent times naval power has assumed much greater importance than it had in the decades following the Second World War, and the idea of the Chinese “string of pearls” means that India has to be preoccupied about Chinese power both in the north and in the south. Sri Lanka’s relations with India could therefore become much more complex than in the past. But I maintain that one fundamental will continue to hold fast: Sri Lanka can have very satisfactory relations with India provided that it does not get together with a foreign power in any way that could be detrimental to India’s legitimate interests.

I began my earlier article by asking what the BJP election tsunami portended for Sri Lanka. I could not deal with the developments that are directly relevant to SL’s ethnic problem. The BJP and its allies secured an absolute majority so that the new Government does not need the support of Jayalalithaa and the AIDMK. Vaiko lost his deposit suggesting that the Eelam problem did not have much sway with the Tamil Nadu voter. But Jayalalitha and her party won 37 out of the 39 Tamil Nadu seats. It appears that for those reasons alone the new Government will not be able to downplay the SL ethnic problem. In addition we must bear in mind some other enormously important facts. The BJP tsunami was mainly in the Hindi belt, not in Bengal and other parts of North India, and – most important of all – not in the Dravidian south. Furthermore, the BJP tsunami was in terms of seats, not in terms of votes, since it got only 31% of the votes. Another fact to be borne in mind is that Telengana has just won statehood after decades of struggle since the late ‘fifties, which is expected to spawn several more demands for statehood. In other words, what the Indians used to call “fissiparous tendencies” will be increasing, causing many headaches to the central Government. In this context, we have to expect the  new Government to re-forge and maintain India’s unity, which in practical terms means that it will be prepared to go some way towards appeasing Jayalalitha and Tamil Nadu. A reasonably high degree of priority will therefore be given to promoting a solution of the SL ethnic problem.

In my article of May 24 and the present one I have set out certain facts which it seems to me we have to bear in mind in trying to manage our relations with the BJP Government in a sensible manner: we have to begin by assuming that a mutual accommodation of legitimate interests should be possible, but we have to be wary because Modi could turn out to be a much tougher personage than Manmohan Singh. The beginning of our new relations has not been auspicious. The joint communiqué issued at the conclusion of President MR’s recent visit omitted any reference to the ethnic problem, which according to contemporary diplomatic practice signified serious disagreement. We now learn from Minister G.L. Peiris that the President had made it clear that there will be no devolution of police powers. Modi had wanted our Government to expeditiously implement13A, and to go beyond it – the going beyond seems to be a new factor in the Indian position. After the President’s return the Government’s position was made clear through Minister Siripala de Silva: Sri Lanka will not accept interference in our internal affairs, and the solution of the ethnic problem will be worked out through the Parliamentary Select Committee.

I will not analyze the government’s position, but it seems clear to me – and it will be probably clear to most readers also – that we are about to enter into a collision course with India. The imperative need of the hour is to work out what strategy should be followed by the government. There are two factors that determine international relations – power and morality. The best illustration of moral power in international relations that I can think of is the Vietnam War. The US had the military power to blow the whole of Vietnam to smithereens, but the moral standards of the international community of the time would not allow that, and the Americans had no alternative to withdrawing – tail between legs. Sri Lanka has no military or economic power worth talking about, and the only way it can come through unscathed is by occupying the moral high ground, in dealing with India and the international community, and above all in dealing with the ethnic problem.