India revisited

“Everyone who takes the slightest look at the map will realise that India is the only neighbour to Sri Lanka”

Erik Solheim, Sattahip, 2002


Your author’s first experience of India was in 1997, when the torrid Summer heat was on the ascendant. The air ticket to Delhi cost around the same then as a precarious boat ride today for a refugee to escape to Chennai from Pesalai and Thalaimanar. I remember that first night, with heat still emanating from the megacity around us, wondering why I had agreed to study in what felt like hell on earth. Three years after, India had become a second home.

By the time I had completed my undergraduate studies, I had travelled from Delhi to Chennai, and across to Bangalore by train. I had taken the Konkan Express, under the Western Ghats and through Goa and Kerala, from Delhi to Tiruchirappalli (Trichy). I had learnt enough Hindi to ask a rickshaw-wallah what life really was in Bihar (answer: positively medieval), follow the oftentimes violent BJP and Congress politics on campus and not lose the plot in vernacular College theatre group productions. I was awestruck by an atomic bomb test on, of all days, Vesak 1998 and lived through the Kargil War in what was a first strike city if the conflict went nuclear. I enjoyed a quiet beer in the Underground Pub in Bangalore before it became infested with yuppies and subsequently, I am told, shut down. In Chennai I observed North Indians felt more foreign than I did amongst the thosai, vadai and the Tamil intercourse. Your author went out on leaking paddle-boats in the middle of an ice cold lake in Nainital, developed white knuckles as the bus negotiated the impossibly narrow and near vertical ascent to Manali, ate far too much Chola Bature and became an expert in crossing rush hour traffic in Old Delhi. He stayed at luxurious Farm Houses of friends, with sprawling lawns cut more precisely than Aishwarya Rai’s fingernails but was more comfortable eating, without the slightest inconvenience the morning after, roti and curries from roadside, ramshackle stalls catering to manual labourers and the delicious railway station platform food that reflected the essential flavours of each State the train passed through.

When asked whether one has been to India, you are compelled to ask in return – which India? – for there are so many to see, feel, hear and sense. Anyone who has spent time in this amazing country finds it is genuinely incredible how just over a billion people do not disintegrate into a primordial morass of children, women, men cows, elephants and monkeys. Yet India is the world’s largest democracy, a country with an economic, cultural, social and political influence of such power that it defines, to large degree, what’s kosher in and in fact, what is South Asia. 

And there’s the rub. 

India is often a big bully that demands, and to whom Sri Lanka supinely gives far too much of attention, making Solheim’s observation quoted above irascibly accurate. For successive governments in Sri Lanka, appeasing India has been on as much a priority as domestic party politics. Though India’s perennial diplomatic line is that it is “committed to the unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka”, we have recumbently tolerated the occasional departure. Well over a decade ago, Operation Poomalai was a hostile airdrop by the Indian Air Force into a besieged city in the embattled North of Sri Lanka. Events after the airdrop led to the lifting of the Sri Lankan Army’s siege on Jaffna and the declaration of a cease-fire with the LTTE. It also led the way to Indian military intervention at the invitation of the Sri Lankan government, that only resulted in hundreds of jawans killed and the IPKF’s ignoble departure, leaving Sri Lanka no better than when they came in.

The recent statement of Sri Lanka’s Army Chief of Gen. Sarath Fonseka, that some politicians in South India are “jokers”, has incensed South Indian polity. Apologies were demanded, and in this case rightfully tendered. But what of India’s significant but often conveniently glossed over contributions to Sri Lanka’s bloody conflict? When will we have the confidence to ask it for a meaningfully apology? As Manvendra Singh writing in The Indian Express in November 1997 notes, 

Assignment Colombo by J N Dixit, the former Foreign Secretary and the then High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, is replete with instances of active contact maintained by agencies of the governments of India and Tamil Nadu with the LTTE, even after the commencement of Operation Pawan by the IPKF. Dixit is explicit in stating that, but for the armed forces, no other Indian agency conducted itself with honour and integrity during the entire involvement with the Sri Lankan Tamil problem.”

As the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai so aptly demonstrated in a manner that was extremely unfortunate, India’s often-unsolicited advice to Sri Lanka on how to deal with terrorism needs to be first preached and practised at home. This is not to say help offered should be shunned or that one should be necessarily rude about declining or rejection opinions from Delhi. We know that globalisation’s inextricable corollary is that most nation-state borders are invariably rendered porous through new technologies, commerce and economic migration, to name just three dominant trends on the ascendant within SAARC. This requires regional strategies to combat terrorism that often infiltrates these channels. Ergo, the responsibility of India (if only out of enlightened self-interest) to freely and in a timely manner share intelligence and situational awareness must be matched by the humility of bordering countries to ask for its help, and provide information in return. 

But even here the playing field is not even – for example, India’s geo-political interests in Sri Lanka are far greater than any other bilateral and multilateral donor, including the Donor Peace Support Group combined. This makes India special, but not so exceptional as to warrant an almost genuflecting representation to Delhi every single time a process or event of significance related to war or peace occurs in Sri Lanka (notwithstanding the request for the extradition of Prabhakaran to stand trial for assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in ‘91). Erik Solheim and GL Peiris in particular, among other key figures in the erstwhile United National Front led peace process with the LTTE were regulars in Delhi. Basil Rajapakse was in India recently as a special envoy of his brother the President to ease tensions arising out of the regime’s war efforts and resulting humanitarian crises. Ironically, even Prabhakaran had this to say on India in his Heroes Day speech this year, 

“At no stage did we ever consider India as an enemy force. Our people always consider India as our friend. They have great expectations that the Indian super power will take a positive stand on our national question.”

Sheer chutzpah! 

I have been an ardent critic of Rajapakse regime, noting that a war of attrition by the State and the LTTE against each other, with complete disregard for human rights, is a Sisyphean attempt to secure social and political justice through military means. On 12th November 2008 however, a unanimous resolution passed by the Tamil Nadu state legislative assembly called for an immediate ceasefire and resumption of negotiations with the LTTE. When presented this document by the Indian PM in Delhi, the Sri Lankan President rebuffed the request for ceasefire and negotiations, asserting that the war would continue till the LTTE was wholly defeated and ‘terrorism’ eradicated. It was pointless, to put it politely, to expect or demand otherwise. Unlike any other in the past, this regime demonstrates what can be termed a visceral diplomacy, that has with surprising effectiveness and finesse (by an otherwise brutish regime) dispatched Delhi’s concerns and pursued the war as it sees fit. India today, different to what it was in the late 80s, does not know how to (or perhaps does not feel any urgency to) deal with the fall out of the Rajapakse regime’s policies and practices. 

But the issue is not about taming India, or saying to hell with Delhi. We need India. It is certainly not “our only neighbour”, but we have only ourselves to blame for its enduring interest in our domestic conflict, for example through the actions of 26-year old Wijayamunige Rohana in 1987 and in 1991 by Thenmuli Rajaratnam. Both attacked the same person – Rajiv Gandhi – though the latter more decisively than the former. But this violent and tragic history alone is no justification for India to hand over resolutions that conveniently gloss over the atrocities of one party to the conflict whilst highlighting those of the other. 

Geo-politics and strategic interests of global superpowers always frame diplomacy. In this sense, countries have never been equal, and never will be. At the same time, the need to envision a South Asia beyond that is not shackled by or anchored to the imagined and geo-political domain of the ‘Indian subcontinent’ must surely be an imperative of countries in this region, including Sri Lanka. This is not a bagatelle concern or task, nor is it in any way signification of an Indo-phobia that needs to take hold in our region to curtail the worst of India’s influences. Our challenge is to imbue the best of India and yet maintain an identity – as a country and as a South Asia of shared values, peoples, traditions and culture – that to a far greater degree than today recognises salient contributions to a regional identity by countries other than India. It requires India to respect sovereignty of its neighbours. It requires us to recognise that ‘sovereignty’ and Westphalian notions of nation-state need to be revisited in light of domestic conditions, such protracted war and violent ethnic conflict, with significant regional and international implications. 

I wrote with great fondness memories of the India I’ve experienced because it is a country from which we can learn a great deal. Yet, I am Sri Lankan and proud of it. Warts and all, this is home. Outside, when oftentimes asked from which part of India I come from, I sometimes say that I come from a part that thankfully dislodged itself from India millions of years ago. It’s time Sri Lanka’s mainstream party politics reflected this, but in a manner that does not use tired ideas of sovereignty and national pride to further parochial ends hugely detrimental to our future and by extension besmirches a larger South Asian identity.


Published in Spectrum, December 2008


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