The saying ‘Confusion worse confounded’ would be an apt description to understand the mounting confusion of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy in recent times.
Various interpretations ranging from highfalutin diplomatic analyses, contemporary ‘historical scoops’, the necessity for the establishment of law and order through police and military assistance while ignoring laws ensuring fundamental human rights and many others have been presented in the media.
This commentator in previous columns has presented a view that the origin of the present confusion dates back over seven decades when countries in and around the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka became independent nations.
India, on becoming the biggest independent nation, had Gandhian and Nehruvian thinking determining the future course Independent India should take, and even Nehru with his liberalism could not help thinking of a new India in terms of British India. Prof Shelton Kodikara in his book Indo-Ceylon Relations Since Independence says: In 1945 Nehru had pointed out that the cultural, linguistic and cultural unity of India and Ceylon supports the view that Ceylon would inevitably be drawn closer to India presumably as an ‘autonomous unit of the Indian Federation’. Such a view was soon repudiated by Nehru and he repeatedly tried to assure Ceylonese that India had no designs on Ceylon.
However, such views remain even today. During President Wickremesinghe’s recent visit to New Delhi, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement “We hope that Sri Lanka’s government will fulfill the aspirations of the Tamil people…” is history repeating itself.
On the eve of Indian independence and soon after that Indian writers expressed the opinion that the whole Indian Ocean was vital to India’s security with Ceylon figuring in these writings. K.M. Panikkar, an Indian geopolitical pundit and former ambassador to China, wrote: “An integrated concept of defence supported by a consistent foreign policy is among two major contributions from Britain to the Indian people.
Panikkar and many other Indian geopolitical strategists and Indian leaders who had held this view may have changed them over time but it is manifestly clear that the psyche of Indian strategists remains the same: India has to fill the vacuum left by British India over the Indian Ocean region.
Narendra Modi and India have now appeared prominently on the world stage mainly because of the perceived threat of the rise of China as a world economic and military power. The United States with its Western allies—the so-called ‘International Community’—since the end of the Cold War sees China as the challenge to its continued world dominance, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region.
India, now with the world’s biggest population and professed economic growth, is seen by these Western powers as the only countervailing force that could meet the perceived threat from China.
Despite the Indian premier’s posture as a world leader in his own right, the red-carpet welcomes being laid out to him in world capitals, are obviously attributable to India being a partner in the quadrilateral defence agreement or the Quad comprising India, the US, Australia and Japan to meet the perceived challenge of China in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.
The Western powers, it appears, have given free rein—a carte blanche—to India as their proxy in South Asia. This is a vital issue that concerns all of India’s neighboring countries.
Devoid of resources to set up his dream of an Indian Raj elsewhere, Modi is now attempting to set it up under the guise of his ‘Neighborhood First Policy’ which was recently spelt out by his Foreign Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in an address to a Delhi University.
Modi’s statement in an Indian language, presumably Hindi, and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s speech in English on TV struck a jarring note on the status of relations between the two countries.
Indian leaders are now beginning to show arrogance towards Sri Lanka, treating it more as a client Indian state. Indian Finance Minister last week called upon China to join the debt relief efforts of Sri Lanka. Whatever her altruistic motives may have been, any issues between Sri Lanka and China are issues between two sovereign nations and the recent Indian munificence does not grant India the powers to intervene.
The five yet unpublished Memoranda of Understanding between the two countries during Wickremesinghe’s recent visit are open windows for India to enter and intertwine its financial and national security interests irretrievably, according to reports and commentaries.
One of them involves the building of a ‘Hanuman’ bridge across the Palk Strait connecting the two countries. It will apparently be a one-way street for goods produced in a country of 1.4 billion people to flow into a country of 22 million. Wickremesinghe’s and his special envoy Milinda Moragoda’s thinking appears to be that ‘Anything made in India, the Indian gods made them all’ for Lanka.
Does Sri Lanka need an international highway to export spices and gems and import Indian eggs? On the other hand, if the islanders get a little uppity and defy its big brother/new master an Indian Peace Keeping Force could drive into the island in a matter of hours.
Ranil Wickremesinghe should know that the best defence for islands in the shadows of giant continental neighbours is to remain as islands and that is how Sri Lanka remained an independent country—despite being overrun—periodically in its history. Can such an agreement even though not legally binding be made by a president who does not have a mandate from the people to govern the country?
The issue of fundamental rights of Tamils and all minorities is not a matter for New Delhi’s regional strategists who with their interference have complicated issues, even leading to a 30-year insurrection. The fundamental rights of all citizens are enshrined in the Sri Lanka constitution and have to be implemented by the Lankan executive, legislature, and judiciary—not by a foreign power.