Is Security of India and Sri Lanka ‘Indivisible’?
by Gamini Gunawardane
Rtd. Snr. DIG
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his recent Wesak visit to Sri Lanka had said among other things in his speech at the BMICH to celebrate the International Wesak Day, that “Whether it is on land or in the waters of Indian Ocean the security of our societies is indivisible” This idea deserves scrutiny. Is it in fact so? Not from Sri Lanka’s point of view. It reminds one in one of those de Lanerolle’s plays (‘Ralahamy Rides Again’ (?) ) where the Ralahamy in his pretended exuberance of goodwill said “Your house is my house etc…..and goes on to nearly say, “your wife is my wife” but stops half way!
But this statement is not a laughing matter, coming from the Indian Prime Minister and hence calls for a serious scrutiny. Is Sri Lanka’s security indivisible from that of India? It never was nor is. These two neighbouring sovereign countries have existed side by side down the ages, for the last over two and half thousand years of known history. We have been two separate and independent countries not really depending on each other for security. In fact, a country called ‘India’ came into existence only in 1947 after being unified for the first time as ‘British India’ during the British times and after the partition of Pakistan, also in 1947. Sri Lanka on the other hand, has existed as a single political and geographical entity totally surrounded by sea, with a culture of her own together with a highly developed hydraulic-engineering civilization and as a well-known center for Theravada Buddhism, well known in the then known world by the name Seehaladweepa both in the East and West. She was governed by an unbroken line of kings until as late as 1815A.C.
However, another aspect from the historical point of view is that down our history is that, there have been several invasions to this country by Southern Indian powers in different times up to about the 13 the Century, emanating from Chola, Pandya and Chera kingdoms who plundered the splendor of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa Kingdoms. One such invasion lasted for 40 years while the other 70 years after which the invaders were driven back. Some Anuradhapura Kings had their troops stationed in Mannar area to counter any sudden invasions from South India. Thus, it will be seen that the security threat to this country came from nowhere but from the Indian Sub-continent until the European invasions since 1505. The important thing to note here is that if there ever was any security threat to Sri Lanka it was from India, besides the Western countries.
Despite all this, both Sinhalese and Tamils looked at India as a friendly neighbour. In fact, the Sinhala Buddhists looked upon India with affinity as the country of the Buddha and Emperor Asoka as the great friend who sent his own son Mahinda Thero and later his daughter, Sanghamitta Theri carrying the message of the great Teacher, the Buddha. Later, the left Tooth Relic was sent to this country by the Royalty of Kalinga when their security became threatened. Since then the possession of the Tooth Relic became the symbol of political power in this country. And thousands of Buddhists go on the great pilgrimage to visit the sacred places where Buddha traversed. That pilgrimage is not referred to as a trip to India but to the revered Jambu Dweepa or better in Sinhala as ‘Dambadivu Thala Uthum’ todate. Thus, it was the consensual belief of the Sinhala Buddhists in this country that India was the country of our spiritual relatives and it was unthinkable that any harm or hostility would come from that friendly country until they were rudely awakened to the existential reality that the Tamil Terrorists had descended here with terrorist training and succor from this would be ‘unfailing friend’.
Till then, this comfort zone was further cushioned by the happenings in the early 20th century when Sri Lankans were looking up to India with fresh fascination with their robust Anti-British patriotic movement that was an inspiration, the young intellectuals’ admiration for great men like Rabindranath Tagore, his Shanthi Nikethan where young and up an coming literati rushed in droves; Satyajith Ray and his films, and then the Hindi films and film songs while the Tamils were head over heels with the south Indian films and those film stars and later Bharaha Natyam and much later, admiration of our cricketers by the Indian cricket fans – all factors on which a great relationship between the two countries could have been built and flourished.
Mr. Modi has referred to the Indian Ocean around our two countries. Although it is called Indian Ocean by the British as much as they called Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, it does not really belong to India as such. It is the Ocean that abuts Pakistan, Iran and Eastern African continent and Madagascar in the West, the Malayan Peninsula, Myanmar and Thailand to the East and Maldives to the south. In fact it is only the islands of Sri Lanka and Maldives that have this Ocean surrounding all their territory. And under the provisions of the Law of the Sea, the Ocean surrounding eight times the size of Sri Lanka including parts of the sea between her and India too belongs to her. That includes a part of the southern Bay of Bengal.
During this long period of history of over two millennia, neither country depended on each other for their security. Of course whenever the Portuguese were about be thrown out of this country by Rajasinghe the Great in his campaigns, the embattled Portuguese were rescued by their re-enforcements that came from Goa. During the 1915 riots too the British brought down Marati troops to quell it. Much later, during the 1971 JVP rebellion India sent, on request, a troop of Gurkhas followed by a stock of ammunition for Sri Lanka government to meet the emergency. This was due to the excellent relationship that Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike had with the Nehrus and later with the Gandhi family who were family friends. It was based on mutual respect. This relationship was so intimate that when Indira Gandhi came here to attend the Non-Aligned Nations’ Conference in 1976, she resided nowhere but at Temple Trees. Similarly, Mrs. Bandaranaike maintained a close relationship with Gen. Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan, Gen. Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Chou en Lai, the Chinese PM and also Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia among others. These friendships had been so close that the Late Stanley Jayaweera once told me that Mrs. B. was in the habit of sending a sack of mangoes from the first pluck in her Horagolla estate to Gen. Zia-ul-Haq by Air Ceylon.
Pursuant to the same kind of healthy relationships Mrs. Bandaranaike was able to obtain from the then Indian leaders a satisfactory agreement of sharing the stateless Indian plantation workers left behind by the British and also on the ownership of the Kachchathivu island. This did not mean that Mrs. Bandaranaike compromised her independence regarding the security of Sri Lanka vis-à-vis India when it came to her stand during the Indo-Pakistan war over East Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, even after India had supported her to face the JVP insurrection. When a request was made of her by Pakistan for re-fueling her war planes on their way to East Pakistan because they could not fly over India, she permitted Pakistani military aircraft to land in Katunayake for refueling. Whether she consulted India before doing so is not known, but this gesture on the part of Mrs. B is a significant to the pointer to the independent position Sri Lanka enjoyed and exercised especially against the latest claim that the security of Sri Lanka and India was ‘indivisible’. This would show that historically and even in modern times it was not so. She did not stop at that. If my memory is correct, she proceeded to act as a third party intervener to get the two warring parties to talk to each other, to usher peace between them. Subsequently she went on to declare Sri Lankan ports a War Free Zone by denying entry to war ships carrying nuclear weapons. This, it would be seen as quite in contrast to the short sighted indiscretion on the part of Mahinda Rajapaksa to permit entry of Chinese submarines to the Colombo Port.
This fine relationship despite the minor ups and downs, were maintained in a lively spirit till the end of the Bandaranaike era and to the accession of J.R. Jayewardene. He quite unnecessarily is alleged to have made some disparaging remarks on Indira Gandhi and her son, the late Sanjay that naturally irritated Indira. Then JR took a more pro-America stand as against India which then was more pro-Soviet Union. JR went on a further irritant step of acceding some land for the communication base for Voice of America (VOA). India became restive with the suspicion that this step may give a facility to the US to monitor Indian communication systems. This behavior on the part of JRJ gave rise to the suspicion to India that Sri Lanka might afford the use of Trincomalee harbour by the US.
It was probably then that India sought to destabilize Sri Lanka by encouraging Tamil separatism and later terrorism, providing training, succor and money, since late 70s. In hindsight it is now suspected in some quarters, that the ’83 Riots were triggered by remote control by the RAW in instigating the young and rising LTTE to set off the successful land mine on the army patrol at Thirunavelly that incensed the Sinhalese. For, till the widespread violence that it sparked off set the Tamils against the Sinhalese per se, as till then the support of the Tamils, especially in Colombo and other areas was lukewarm for the terrorist project. It was again the brain child of RAW who was not satisfied with the response of the Sinhalese into violence, by challenging their religious susceptibility. Their strategy in all probability was to really set the Tamils and Sinhalese against each other, irreversibly. In that sense both the Sinhalese and Tamils fell victim to the RAW’s sinister strategy. Now India had created a playing field to justifiably and continuously interfere in Sri Lanka.
Conduct of India from then onwards becomes consistent with their line of thinking. When the Sri Lankan Forces were about to strike the final blow on the LTTE in 1987, India again came up with their despicable and crude intervention by sending their planes to intervene dropping food ostensibly as ‘humanitarian aid’ from the air on the Jaffna Peninsula, to intimidate President J.R. Jayewardene. India then followed it up with the infamous Indo-Sri Lanka Accord thrusting upon this country the humiliating 13th Amendment which neither side wanted and the white elephant Provincial Councils with which this country has since been saddled. The only expression of public protest against this humiliating insult was the irresponsible act of a naval rating on the customary honour guard given to Rajiv Gandhi by swinging his rifle butt at the Indian premier.
Immediately on the failure of the Indo-Lanka accord was the induction of the IPKF who suffered ignominy in the hands of the LTTE and had to leave this country failing to accomplish their mission. Finally it was Rajiv Gandhi who had to pay with his life for the folly of a wrong Sri Lanka policy of the arrogant Indian defence policy advisors and the RAW by releasing the genie out of the bottle.
After this bitter lesson of their own creation of the Tamil insurgency growing into terrorism, India kept away from this mess they created. Making good use of this opportunity, Sri Lanka ultimately succeeded in wiping out terrorism in this country finally by crushing it comprehensively with help of course of two countries who are not the friends of India, and also with assistance of American Intelligence. One lesson for India to learn from this expensive learning experience of foreign policy is that it should leave Sri Lanka to manage their own affairs as done over two millennia. Although our two countries are neighbours, we will be most productive if we leave each other alone when Sri Lanka will enjoy its “splendid isolation.” Of course it is a given that SL should be careful not to give India any irritants and do things that may be perceived as security threats.
Since the defeat of the LTTE by the Sri Lanka government, India appears to have resumed her interference. Firstly, she grabbed two consular offices in Jaffna and Hambantota, which are obviously ‘listening posts’. They then took the contract to re-construct the Northern Railway line which could have been done by Sri Lanka Railways. Now there is the talk about constructing a bridge to connect the two countries across the Gulf of Mannar. For whose benefit? There is now a plan to take over more oil tanks in Trinco, to build a railway line connecting Mannar with Trinco, again for whose benefit? Then there is a talk of re-developing the road network connecting Mannar with Jaffna and Trinco. Is all this for the benefit of the people of the Northern Province whose priorities are different? Sri Lanka is now gifted with ambulances, unasked, when the same facilities are scarce for the multitudes in India itself. Also now offered an ECTA the need for which is resented by is rejected by Sri Lanka professionals. Aren’t all these clear moves of uncalled for interferences with this country where the government has become weak?
Judging by the conduct of Mr. Modi on this Wesak visit, one begins to wonder whether India is looking to play that mutually destructive game again. It is rather transparent that his visit was not a benign one prompted by what we call “Buddhaalambhana Peethi” the sentiments with which we are assailed when we are on our pilgrimage to that country. Judging by what he did and said here it was definitely political. Apart from the obnoxious statement on “indivisible security” what he said and did in did in Dickoya raises concern. It is rumoured that that the whole drama there was planned and orchestrated by the RAW. If the plantation Tamils are citizen of this country, why should they be waving the Indian flag instead of the Sri Lankan flag? Incidentally who provided those Indian flags? The grapevine tells us that it was the RAW agents. Mr. Modi is stated to have told them that they are the ‘Indian Diaspora’ here. Would he say that if he visited the one time Indian immigrants now in Malaysia, Fiji or South Africa or for that matter in the US or UK? Isn’t that mischievous, looking to create fresh trouble now that last one was successfully thwarted after struggling for over 30 years? Is that good neighbourly conduct? Why does India do this to us? Isn’t it wrong advice which is not in the ultimate interest of India itself?
One possible excuse may be the perception or the misperception that it is to prevent ‘flirtation’ of Sri Lanka with China. This is a misconception for the reason that Sri Lanka has most of the time first asked India whether she could meet Sri Lanka’s requirements. For instance, during the ‘war’ days, Sri Lanka placed a list of armaments that she required to be purchased. India turned it down for whatever reasons. Then Sri Lanka approached her other two friends, Pakistan and China. They readily obliged with good credit facilities and timely delivery, together with trainers on how to handle some of them. When the terrorists developed the air strike capability, India gave some radar equipment that was ineffective. It was then that Sri Lanka turned to China who generously supplied the three dimensional monitoring equipment. Similarly, the Hambantota Port project was first offered to India who turned it down. It was then that China was approached, and now it is a done. A friend in need is a friend indeed. So is Sri Lanka at fault? The only time she took a wrong step was when she permitted for the Chinese submarines to berth in Colombo. If this is a wrong step vis-à-vis India, how many wrongs have India done to Sri Lanka?
Even in relation to China isn’t India suffering from a misconception, at least as far as we see? Even the last war that India and China fought over 50 years ago was over a dispute on certain areas in the North East of India which China rightly or wrongly believed to be theirs after the British had left. Could one think today that China has any designs on India threatening its security? China is country very much larger than India both in land and population and struggling with related problems. Would such a country have any designs on India which is burdened with inextricable problems with an exploding population 90% of whom are illiterate?
If it is trade that they are in conflict, are they vying for the same markets or raw materials? Each has vast human resources. They have two huge armies with nuclear power. Can either of them afford go to war with each other when their primary target is growth? It is clear that China is trying to ensure an uninterrupted passage for their oil supply and exports. Could they be faulted for this as an aggressive military push. In our view, India is only behaving so at the behest of the US who for whatever reason, is using them as a pawn in a vain effort to keep China at bay. In any case, placed in these circumstances, why should India and Sri Lanka worry about each other instead of proceeding in their own independent ways?