Milinda Moragoda arrived in New Delhi on August 31. More than two weeks have elapsed, but the Sri Lankan High Commissioner has yet to present his credentials to the President of India.
Moragoda has served Sri Lanka with distinction—as a cabinet minister, as one of the chief negotiators with the Tigers, as a brilliant economist, and as the founder of Pathfinder Foundation, one of the leading think tanks in Colombo. As the principal negotiator with the Tigers, he was more than a match to Anton Balasingham. Moragoda told me that Sri Lanka was very keen to prolong the ceasefire, because all the contradictions within the LTTE—the differences between the northern leadership that was using the eastern guerrillas as the cannon fodder and the loss of revolutionary fervour among the guerrillas when they were allowed to get married and have children—would come out into the open. These contradictions were exploited by the armed forces and they finally eliminated the Tigers in 2009. What is more, the members of the EU wanted to censure Sri Lanka for human rights violations that took place during the Fourth Eelam War; the Indian delegation took the initiative and a resolution was passed congratulating Colombo for eliminating one of the most ruthless terrorist organisations in the world.
India, as Moragoda has written, is the “cornerstone” of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. And he has come to India at a time when Colombo is being isolated in the Western world—when the Indian Ocean region is becoming increasingly “complex and challenging” and China’s extensive involvement in Sri Lanka has become a matter of serious concern for New Delhi.
Before he came to India as High Commissioner, he took the initiative and with the assistance of his colleagues in the Foreign Office and “India watchers” in Sri Lanka, prepared a document entitled Integrated Country Strategy for Sri Lankan Diplomatic Missions in India, 2021-2023. The report contains recommendations for improving trade and investment; promoting educational, religious, and cultural exchanges; finding a solution to the fisheries problem in the Palk Bay; facilitating the return of the refugees from Tamil Nadu; and giving a fillip to people-to-people cooperation.
When I read the report, I was shocked. There was no mention as to how Colombo would find a solution to the ethnic problem and how to introduce participatory democracy in the predominantly Tamil areas. The implication is very clear—India has no role in this crucial matter and as a sovereign country, Sri Lanka would find a solution on its own.
A country’s foreign policy is not static, it is subject to constant change, according to the needs of the changing world and the country’s requirements. The personalities at the helm of government and their peculiar mindsets also shape the process of continuity and change. But all these have to work within the fundamental realities of the region. There is no way of getting away from the fact that India is looming large with its size, economic resources, military strength, and the big power-small power syndrome. It may be recalled that in the perception of the majority Sinhalese, J N Dixit, then Indian High Commissioner (in the post-1987 period), was viewed as the “Viceroy of India”. There are inherent fears and misgivings about India’s long-term intentions and capabilities. India, in turn, believes that its neighbours are getting close to China to “cut India to size”.
Adding complexity to the situation, the historical bonds of common cultural heritage and the spread of India’s ethno-cultural reach naturally raise fears of getting swamped. The overlap of a large number of ethno-religious-linguistic groups across India’s porous borders generates stresses and strains in bilateral relations by way of movement of refugees, illegal migration, large-scale poaching by fishermen and spread of narcotics. I use the term Siamese twins to describe the close nexus between India and Sri Lanka. What afflicts one will affect the other.
Three guiding principles of India’s neighbourhood policy require reiteration. The ethnic tensions should not be solved by military means; New Delhi would adhere to asymmetric reciprocity in its relations with smaller neighbours; and the problems relating to ethnicity and nation-building could be solved, not by imposition of majoritarian rule, but by participatory democracy. Sri Lanka has to work out a political system where a Tamil could be a proud Tamil, while, at the same time, be a loyal Sri Lankan citizen.
Two illustrations bring out the legacy of mistrust, what I call “love-hate syndrome”. In April 1971, faced with an internal revolt posed by the JVP, PM Sirimavo Bandaranaike requested Indian military assistance, which was spontaneously given. How did Sri Lanka reciprocate India’s goodwill? Six months later, when the East Pakistan crisis deteriorated and India had banned overflight of Pakistani planes, Colombo permitted Pakistani Air Force planes to have transit and refuelling facilities; the planes were meant for putting down the democratic aspirations of East Pakistanis.
The induction of the Indian Peace Keeping Force, on the invitation of President Jayewardene, and the subsequent marginalisation of the Tigers enabled the Sri Lankan armed forces to withdraw from the north and the east and tackle the problems posed by the second JVP revolt. In the natural course, it should have earned for India the gratitude of the Sinhalese; on the contrary, it was explained away as an illustration of India’s hegemonistic designs. What is more, the two antagonistic entities, the Tigers and the Sri Lankan armed forces, came together. Premadasa gave a “second life” to the Tigers by providing finance and arms.
It is a strange paradox, but true, that Prof G L Pieris and Milinda Moragoda have undergone a metamorphosis in the reverse direction. Both were great champions of the 13th Amendment and devolution of powers to provinces. But today they want the provincial councils to be abolished because to quote Moragoda, they “are expensive, divisive and fraught with inefficiency”. If a hospital does not function properly, the solution is not to shut down the hospital but remove the causes of inefficiency. Moragoda also wants democracy to be extended to Pradeshiya Sabhas and villages; this could be done only if a constitutional amendment is passed. Otherwise, it would turn out to be mere decentralisation of powers, powers that could be changed according to the whims of the ruling clique.
It is a difficult pill to swallow, but let me underline the truth. By democracy today, we mean inclusiveness and participation of every ethnic group on equal terms. The Indian academic, Mukul Kesavan, has repeatedly underlined that majoritarian democracies would turn out to be “murderous majorities”. Unless the Sinhalese start speaking of democracy with respect for diversity, pluralism and power-sharing, India-Sri Lanka relations would be subjected to severe stresses and strains.
(The author was the Founding Director of the Centre in the University of Madras)
Senior Professor (Retd), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras