By Shivanthi Ranasinghe
India needs to change its foreign policy vis-a-vis Sri Lanka immediately. These policies have not only failed, but have disastrously backfired on India, ending in a result totally unanticipated and always against India. The extent of the damage caused by their own policies to India can be measured against the success of their arch rival, China.
PM Modi visiting Sri Lanka for Vesak celebrations is viewed by the Sri Lankan public with extreme suspicion. Nobody accepts the government’s assurances that Modi is just being a good neighbour, popping in for tea and lanterns. In the fracas erupting with attempts to lease the Magampura Port to the Chinese, there was a significant fraction that saw the benefits of the Chinese coming in, and argued it would balance the Indians. However, no one has offered the same argument with respect to India’s interest in the Trincomalee oil wells. That is, the argument that the Indians in the East would balance the Chinese presence in Sri Lanka is not entertained by any quarter. It is the general view that Indians in Sri Lanka is bad news. This perception is entirely due to India’s own doing.
Since the ’70s, India had been playing deceptive politics with Sri Lanka as well as with their own people – especially in Tamil Nadu. Even at the height of friendship between the Indian PM Indira Gandhi and her Sri Lankan counterpart, Sirima Bandaranaike, India gave clandestine sanctuary and support to Tamil extremists from Sri Lanka. Starting actively with Gandhi, right up to and including Modi, these elements have found a sympathetic audience from the Indian government. Their sympathy for Sri Lankan separatists based on mono-ethnic claims is however disingenuous when they are also fighting separatism to maintain India’s overall unity and territorial integrity.
India fails because of a feudal mentality. They do not recognize Sri Lanka’s right to be a progressive sovereign State. They neither help Sri Lanka develop, nor let Sri Lanka get the necessary assistance from elsewhere. We saw this in the ’70s and its repetition after the successful conclusion of our war against terrorism.
JR Jayewardene’s attempts to forge relationships with other powers to neutralize the growing terrorist threat only brought the aggressiveness of India to the forefront. The USA, Pakistan and Israel factor was enough for India to arm and train the terrorists.
After 1983, this programme received renewed vigor. The intention was to destabilize Sri Lanka to force down our throats an Indian policy, but not a Tamil policy.
Coming in the guise of protecting the Tamils in the North and East, the conditions stipulated in the Indo-Lanka Accord reflect the foreign policies of the Indian central government. For instance, the Agreement extracted from the Sri Lankan Government that Trincomalee or any Sri Lankan port may not be used by a foreign country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests.
Creation of PCs
The creation of the Provincial Councils (PCs) was to reduce the country’s control by the centre (as can be seen in today’s attempts to do away with the Executive Presidency). This way, the concessions extracted over Trincomalee can be further consolidated once power is devolved to the PC. That is why we see a Tamil polity that is subservient to India making strides in our halls of power whilst the Tamil leaders, whose thinking is independent of India, are near invisible.
Today – that is 30 years later – Trincomalee is again the focus of India. That is why Modi’s visit is viewed with such mistrust.
Former ambassador Bandu de Silva (BS), on whether Sri Lanka should offer more concessions to India over Trincomalee, says in his essay that “the Rajiv-JR Agreement of July 1987 should be read from back to front.” He explains that “India wanting to extract concessions over Trincomalee” was not brought suddenly into the Accord, but that Sri Lanka was under pressure to do so for quite some time. Indeed, according to former Indian Ambassador to Sri Lanka, JN Dixit, Gandhi did not rush JR or the Tamil parties concerned to accept the agreement. Instead, it had been under negotiations for nearly four years.
The other conditions, as major concerns to India, include that Sri Lanka may not employ foreign military and intelligence personnel and ensure any broadcasting facilities set up by a foreign broadcasting organization would be solely used for broadcasting purposes and not for any military or intelligence work.
An interesting condition India insisted then, and is still after, is that the restoring and operating of Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm must be undertaken as a joint venture between India and Sri Lanka. It was only if we fulfilled these conditions that India promised to deport all Sri Lankans engaged in either terrorist activities or advocating separatism or secessionism.
Clearly, none of these conditions address the need, nor provide the mechanism for self-determination that the Tamil separatists seek. The only mechanism this installs is one where India consolidates its power in Sri Lanka. Thus, Tamil civilians became hostages of both India’s foreign policy as well as that of the LTTE’s for nearly 30 years.
India and the LTTE used the Tamils as an excuse to achieve their objectives. The Tamils who lived in the LTTE infested areas experienced rampant killing, torture, abductions, disappearances, conscription in their daily lives in addition to overall dehumanization. Tamils did not get the security they hoped for from the Indian Peace Keeping Force. Their many atrocities are yet to be investigated. Those who sought refuge in Tamil Nadu are still living in camps, under strict rules and regulations. They are not recognized by the Indian State at all, despite approaching their second generation. The Tamil Nadu fishing trawlers destroy the livelihoods of the Tamil fishermen. The Indian government refuses to take action.
India appears unaware that their hypocrisy is exposed. What has India gained by deliberately destabilizing Sri Lanka? They transformed our ceremonial Army into the fighting force we have today. An important point India must deeply reflect upon is that the Vadamaarachchi Operation had the LTTE cornered. They were about to be annihilated, when India literally descended on us. They clearly thought that what they created, they can control.
The LTTE obviously disagreed and took on the IPKF. After two years, the IPKF was nowhere close to what the Sri Lankan military was about to achieve, had India not interfered. When the IPKF packed their bags to leave Sri Lankan shores, 1155 Indian officers and men had been killed and 36 permanently disabled. C.A. Chandraprema notes that not even in the battles with China and Pakistan, did India suffer so ignominiously. As a result of their deceptive politics, observes Chandreprema, the Indian Central Government, worried over the Tamil Nadu reaction, have not commemorated the deaths of these officers and men, despite the passage of time.
It was the Sri Lankan government that actually erected a monument in their honour, observes Chandreprema. Thus, until the defeat of the LTTE, the Indian military hierarchy was unable to even place a wreath at this memorial column and honour these officers and men. These two incidents – cornering the LTTE in 1987 and actually defeating them in 2009, and the decency of the Sri Lankan government to remember a force that invaded our country in all but name, should send a very important message to the Indian government. We proved that numbers and strength are two very different things. So are supremacy and decency things apart.
When India is dealing with Sri Lanka, India must not take their attention away from an incident that took place when Rajiv Gandhi was in Sri Lanka in 1987. He was here to sign the Indo-Lanka Accord. He had outsmarted JR the old fox and he was clearly very proud. At the Guard of Honour review, he was oozing with hubris until a naval rating stepped out of formation and swung his rifle at him as he was passing by.
To add to the shame and embarrassment, the naval rating upon being questioned as to his motives, explained that killing was not his intention, but would have whacked Gandhi even if all he had was a broom stick. Wijemuni Vijitha Rohana de Silva became an instant hero. Though he was sentenced to prison, as soon as Ranasinghe Premadasa succeeded JR, he had him released.
After that incident, no Indian PM dared visit Sri Lanka for the next 28 years. That was the legacy India inherited for destabilizing Sri Lanka.
Yet, India appears to have learnt nothing from these lessons. For 30 years we endured terrorism. During this time, India, lost their Rajiv Gandhi to the LTTE as he went on the campaign trail seeking re-election to power. Yet, it was India’s enemy States, Pakistan and China, which supported Sri Lanka in our efforts to eradicate terrorism. India not only procrastinated but also tried to dictate the weaponry we ought to get. Had it not been for Indian interference, we would have got the special radar equipment that would have detected the planes that flew over Colombo city, before they did so.
Against such experiences, our recognition of Pakistan and China as our all-weather friends is natural. Why India never factored this in when formulating their policies is indeed curious. At least, during the many cricket matches, India should have taken note that Sri Lankans cheer for the Pakistani team when they play against the Indian team.
When the Magampura Port was first offered to them, India should have helped. Instead, they dilly-dallied because their thinking was that a tiny country like ours does not need such infrastructural development. When we commenced the Colombo Port City Project, this was actually communicated to the then Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa that besides the project being a security threat to India, we do not need such projects. This opinion did not come from an economist, but a national security advisor to the Indian government.
China on the other hand, understood the value of a port in Hambantota. Hence, while India baulked and belched, China quickly became our strategic infrastructure development partner and helped us with many of our other projects as well.
India should have been smart, but again decided to flex their muscles. This time of course, we did not get any dhal air drops or an Indian Peace Keeping Force. Instead we got Ajit Doval.
Considered second only to Modi in power, Doval has the dubious honour of being the architect behind our 8 January 2015 regime change. Former Director of Intelligence Bureau and now National Security Advisor, he is known as the Indian James Bond. An unconventional thinker, he has served his country well and has pulled off many dangerous heists and cunning strategies. Now in his 70s, more powerful than any ministers of defence or foreign affairs, he seems to have met his Waterloo by trying to do a Sikkim in Sri Lanka. Just as in Sikkim, through sheer cunning, he managed to change the face of political powers in Sri Lanka.
However, again due to the failure of Indian policy, Doval’s scheme has left egg on India’s face again. He managed to rid an administration that was forging close ties with China. If the new government is to survive, then obviously, someone had to fill the lacuna created by dislodging the Chinese from the picture. India again failed to understand this basic logic. They thus never brought any investments. Without investments, the government had no option but to go hat in hand back to the Chinese. The Chinese understood the Sri Lankan government’s difficulty and returned to develop the Colombo Port City, but naturally with conditions more favourable to China. Severely cash strapped, the government has opted to lease the Magampura Port to the Chinese – thereby further consolidating their presence in Sri Lanka.
India had stayed eerily quiet. They are yet to offer a solution to safeguard their interests. Instead, they are concentrating on the Trincomalee Oil Tanks. Susil Premajayantha – one time Minister of Power and Energy – is curious as to why India is after the oil tanks when their market share is less than 15pc. It has been noted that the Indians are not concerned about maintaining the oil tanks already in their custody.
This Oil Tank Farm, built in the vicinity of the Trincomalee Harbour – world’s second largest natural harbour – is a militarily strategic location with historic fame. Premajayantha categorically states that it is not the tanks that interest the Indians, but the land of 625 acres that holds the tanks.
As long as India stays with deceptive politics, they will continue to lose. They must understand that Sri Lanka is not their enemy, but also not their vassal. If they do not wish to be the stand-alone giant that they are today, then they must understand what they are doing wrong. In 1987, one lone naval rating, Wijemuni Vijitha Rohana de Silva, stood up for our honour. However, this time, judging from the crowds drawn to Joint Opposition’s May Day rally and from the demands made by Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and Government Medical Officers Association through their trade union actions, supported by many other trade unions – all standing against selling our assets to foreign interests, namely India – the gear has been shifted.