A Sugar Quoted Caveat from India?


Refined, sophisticated and articulate Dr Shashi Tharoor (ST hereafter), an accomplished and skilled international civil servant, was in Sri Lanka a few days prior to the Sinhala and Tamil New Year break. He delivered the key note address at Dinesh Weerakkody’s book ‘Ranil Wickremesinghe: A Political Biography’. http://www.ft.lk/article/608598/Dr—Shashi-Tharoor-talks-India-way-for-Sri-Lanka Yet, his address smacked of a thinly veiled caveat to Sri Lanka of its dealings with China.

After serving the United Nations for 29 years, he returned to his native India in 2006. He was elected to the Indian parliament, Lok Sabha from the Indian National Congress from Thiruvananthapuram, in Kerala in 2009. He was Minister of State for External Affairs and subsequently, Human Resource Development in former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s cabinet. He currently serves as Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs.

Accolades for his impassioned speech at the Oxford Union Society in July 2015 were many, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7CW7S0zxv4 from both at home and abroad, including from this writer. The debate was titled ‘This House believes Britain owes reparations to her former colonies’, which was hosted by the world-famous debating society. In content, it was brilliant. In delivery, it was par excellence.

ST spoke of the economic toll that British rule took on India (at the time of the arrival of the East India Company in the sub-continent, India in its current form did not exist). He highlighted India’s share of world trade of 23% when the British arrived (in 1614) which had dropped to 4% when they departed (in 1947). He attributed the decline due to India being governed for the benefit of Britain. He further stated, “Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India. In fact, Britain’s industrial revolution was actually premised upon the de-industrialization of India.” ST concluded his speech stating: “As far as I’m concerned, the ability to acknowledge a wrong that has been done, to simply say sorry, will go a far, far, far longer way than some percentage of GDP in the form of aid. What it required is accepting the principle that reparations are owed. Personally, I’d be quite happy if it was one pound a year for the next two hundred years, after the last two hundred years of Britain in India.”

Many aspects of ancient and more recent Indo–Lanka relations and cooperation were highlighted in ST’s key note address. He waxed eloquent of relations dating all the way back to India’s sacred epic, the Ramayana, striking similarities of the Kandyan and Orissa dance forms, not forgetting the historical bonds and ties of kinship and cultural affiliations of Sri Lanka’s minority Tamil community with their kinsmen in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu. He referred to the growth in trade and investments, cooperation in the fields of education, culture and defense, frequent cricket matches, a broad understanding on major issues of international interest and a relationship marked by frequent and close contact at the highest political level.

He overlooked the absence of a visit to Sri Lanka by an Indian Prime Minister for 28 years between 1987 and 2015, including the tenure of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in whose government he served.

ST availed of this opportunity to voice India’s concerns over China’s interest in the Indian Ocean region which according to him, “undermines India’s historical links and cultural networks built over generations and centuries.” The new Chinese ‘Maritime Silk Road’ initiative was compared with a previous Silk Road avatar undertaken by the celebrated Chinese Admiral Zheng He in the fifteenth century. ST cautioned “those who seek to revive historical links might also wish to remember historical inequities”.

Inequities apply equally to the one time Chinese invader and multiple Indian invaders who invaded Sri Lanka from 205 BC. The Yongel Emperor’s magnanimity and graciousness in restoring and returning to Sri Lanka of King Alakeshvara, imprisoned and taken to Nanjing by Admiral Zheng, was craftily avoided.

This writer, in a previous essay, wrote how most Indian statesmen, politicians, intellectuals and many others justify Indian involvement in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka, based on reasons of kinship between the 1.2 million Tamil community in Sri Lanka and 70 million Tamils in the politically volatile Tamil Nadu. ST too sang from the same copy book. He justified India’s continued engagement with Sri Lanka. “This is not a case of New Delhi interfering gratuitously in the internal affairs of its southern neighbor. India cannot help but be involved, both because it is Sri Lanka’s closest neighbor geographically and because its own Tamil population – some 70 million people in the politically important southern state of Tamil Nadu—remains greatly concerned about the wellbeing of their ethnic cousins across the Palk Straits”.

However, India does not apply the same theory to the wellbeing of 4.8 million Indian Muslims in Indian occupied Kashmir and the concern for their wellbeing of 3.6 million Muslims in Assad Kashmir and 181 million Muslims in Pakistan across borders. Suffice to state, India need to manage its 70 million Tamil population in the same manner Pakistan manage its 181 million Muslims, when Kashmir is in turmoil. Till then, it is a case of India utilizing its brawn rather than brain in its dealings with Sri Lanka.

The “Indian perspective of distinct warmth towards China and Pakistan” referred to by ST is, from a Sri Lankan perspective, India’s own doing. It declined to sell desperately needed weapons to defeat a terrorist movement which India, to begin with, had nurtured, based, trained and armed compelling Sri Lanka to look elsewhere. Friendship towards helpful nations is best explained by the word ‘gratitude’ in the Oxford Dictionary and ‘aabhaar’ in the Hindi language. Nevertheless, the visit by Chinese submarines to the Colombo harbor in late 2014 was a monumental blunder of the previous Lankan administration.

Indian politicians and intellectuals of the likes of ST need understand, notwithstanding the garlands, drummers and pandals arranged at welcome ceremonies, ordinary Sri Lankans view India with extreme suspicion and resentment. A simple test would be a cricket match between India and Pakistan played in Colombo. There will be few locals cheering for the Indian side. Reasons are many, both historical and more recent.

Our history books contain details of repeated invasions of the island by South Indian kings in ancient times. It is compounded by India’s involvement in the birth and growth of multiple Tamil terrorist groups in Sri Lanka, the Indo – Sri Lanka Agreement culminating in the arrival of IPKF and imposition of the 13th Amendment to our constitution in more recent times, confirmed in the writings of one time Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, JN Dixit. Compelling Sri Lanka to abandon Operation Liberation (Vadamarachchi) which would have ended LTTE terrorism in 1987 followed by India’s own Operation Eagle Mission 4 (Poomalai) is a case in point. There are many young persons born after 1987 who are now adults but feel no differently to their elders who lived through such ignominies. Key to this situation is India’s continued involvement in Sri Lanka’s national question. It may be argued that India has lately played a more subdued role. Nevertheless, the constant appeals by local Tamil leaders, the patient hearing given to them by Indian leaders including Prime Minister Modi and the perceived adjudicator role being played by India contributes to the theory of interference. Sri Lanka is a small island comprising of 65.5 thousand square kilometers and a population of less than 21 million. Yet, India has diplomatic representations in Colombo, Kandy, Jaffna and Hambantota besides numerous cultural centers. It has only three offices in London, Birmingham and Edinburgh despite an Indian community in excess of 1 million living in UK. Most Lankans view such acts by India with extreme distrust. Voting against Sri Lanka repeatedly during several UNHRC sessions despite its stated policy of not voting on country specific issues is yet another sour point. India’s total lack of interest in resolving the issue of South Indian fishermen poaching in Sri Lanka’s Northern waters is confirmation of Indian high handedness when dealing with Sri Lanka. Whether called hard power or soft power, it is a projection of Indian muscle power.

The volume of bilateral trade, which stood at USD 4.6 billion in 2014 is heavily in favor of India. The Indian share amounted to USD 4 billion as opposed to Sri Lanka’s share of USD 600 million. Sri Lanka’s small size and inability to produce/manufacture any item in required numbers to meet the demands of the huge Indian market is a factor. That is the very reason India should not brow beat Sri Lanka to purchase Indian helicopters and other such items, especially when more suitable and cost effective alternatives are available elsewhere. Thousands of Maruti ‘Alto 800’ brand made in India vehicles were imported to Sri Lanka from early 2015. It was facilitated by a substantial slash in import duty and simultaneous increase in import duty for hybrid vehicles by a grateful government, assisted by India to win the election. It further enhanced the trade imbalance

ST lamented of inordinate delays faced by Indian private sector firms due to Environmental Impact Assessment regulations which according to him, are applied to Indian firms. A leading local biscuit manufacturer once narrated to this writer of having invested in a biscuit manufacturing plant in India only to close it down after a few years. They found Indian regulations and bureaucracy impossible to work with. Some Sri Lanka exporters complain of inordinate delays ranging from two to three weeks in clearing consignments at Indian ports such as Chennai and Mumbai due to bureaucratic impediments, further aggravated due to long periods transporting cleared goods to large cities, due to poor transport logistics. These periods in transit at times drastically reduce a product’s shelf life thus negatively impacting a possible sale which results in financial losses.  Suffice to state, problems are faced by exporters from both sides of the divide.

Far from the role of security provider for littoral and neighboring states, its intimidating attitude has earned India, the coveted title of Regional Bully. India should think deep and hard of reasons for joint Nepal China military exercises two weeks ago, attended by the Chinese Minister of Defense himself. Indian meddling in Nepal’s constitution making on behalf of the Madeshi community having close ties to people in India, is a duplication of the Indian involvement in Sri Lanka.

India would do well to concentrate on the big picture, that of supplementing its security through friendly relations with its neighbors. On the other hand, if it persists on its current course of meddling in the internal affairs of neighboring countries related to minority communities with ties in India, it might choke of the strangle of its oceanic neck by a Chinese ‘string of pearls’, despite the claimed thick neck.

To conclude, to apply ST’s own words during the Oxford Union debate, the ability to acknowledge a wrong that has been done, to simply say sorry, will go a far, far, far longer way than all the housing projects, rail tracks and other projects in the form of aid and soft loans. What is required is an apology and accepting the principle that reparations are owed for the billions lost during nearly three decades of civil war. Only then could we think of walking forward, hand in hand.

ST’s address in Colombo is at variance from his much acclaimed fifteen-minute contribution during the Oxford Union Society debate.

Meanwhile, the leaders of Sri Lanka should take the polite yet unmistakable caveat presented by Tharoor to heart and effect course correction before it is too late

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