India should forget Sri Lanka’s China and Pakistan bogeys

An observation post overlooking the construction site in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, on Feb. 11, 2010. China has invested millions to develop the port. NYTimesMar 23, 2012 – Since India’s vote supporting the resolution against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) that called for promotion of reconciliation and accountability for alleged violations of International law, the predominant Delhi-centric analyses have been that India has committed an awful blunder. The most common arguments that emerged from the conventional geo-political logic, that completely failed to see the political and public sentiments in Tamil Nadu, as well as the overwhelming evidence of alleged war crimes and human rights violations in Sri Lanka, centred around the following: India has voted against a traditional ally-neighbour and it’s a strategic blunder vis-a-vis China and Pakistan. The chatter also highlighted that the entire Asian block voted in favour while India sided with the West, and that it will further stoke Sinhala nationalism and marginalisation of Tamils. It wasn’t surprising that most of them, except a few like Kamal Mitra Chinoy, Brahma Chellany and Manoj Joshi, spoke about the issue in the same breath as they speak about Pakistan.

Sri Lankan participate in a rally in Colombo ahead of the UN resolution. APVery few went beyond India’s geo-political loss while voting on a crucial resolution that is the first firm rap in the knuckles of a defiant country that is alleged to have killed thousands of its own Tamil citizens.

A country that is allegedly militarising and colonising Tamil majority areas to tank-roll their demography and cultural landscape so that they don’t wield any influence in the country, politically or otherwise; a country that has a terrible history of silencing dissent, whether of human rights activists or journalists so much so that the activists who didn’t toe the government line in Geneva are so scared to go back to Colombo.

And importantly, the resolution is coming after three years of incessant calls by international community for accountability and transparency, that too in the face of insurmountable evidence of war crimes, to which Sri Lanka’s response has been chest-thumping jingoism and war-triumphalism backed by rabid Sinhala chauvinism.

Has India really lost any geo-political advantage? Constantly listening to the TV chatter coming out of Delhi, one might tend to believe so; but in reality is it so?

The two bogeys that we hear in the Sri Lankan context are China and Pakistan; that any space that we leave will be occupied by them. However, the reality is that both China and Pakistan are well-entrenched in Sri Lanka whether India gains extra legroom or not. And, it hasn’t started just yesterday; but decades ago.

China’s presence in Sri Lanka is not just in relation to the USD 1 billion Hambontota port or some of the roads in the north and north-east as many of us believe. They have been together since 1950s, through thick and thin, much before the disastrous Indo-China war in 1962.

In a note for the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis , RN Das writes: “the most glaring example of this is the Rubber-Rice Agreement of 1952, which has been renewed from time to time. The agreement was said to be too attractive and a boon to Sri Lanka for it not only provided a market for its surplus rubber but obtained its access to low priced food-grains so much needed.”

In a maritime agreement, China had also provided a most-favoured nation treatment to the commercial vessels between itself and Sri Lanka as early as 1963. At least 45 years ahead of the so called “string-of-pearls” theory.

As of 2009, China was the biggest lender (US$ 1.2 billion) to the island with interests in airport, power-plants, roads, bridges and so on. President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited China five times during his tenure and three times before he assumed office. High level Chinese delegations too have visited Colombo on an agreement-signing spree.

The tottering Sri Lankan Airlines flies to Beijing thrice a week (with at least one Chinese-speaking crew-member), in addition to three other airlines; Chinese prostitutes are a common sight at Colombo’s gambling dens and luxury hotels, and Colombo’s Chinese restaurants provide more authentic Chinese dishes than one gets in India.

Sri Lanka’s relationship with Pakistan might not be as much about money or the free trade agreement between them as it is about arms although Pakistan is its second largest trading parter. Pakistan has been Sri Lanka’s buddy in “arms” for years. From battle-tanks to a variety of arms and ammunition, and even a Sino-Pak aircraft. Pakistan also trains Sri Lankan army-men. One can fly Colombo-Karachi in three hours or so. Not to mention the fake-DVD shops run by Pakistanis on the the city’s arterial Galle Road, the salwar-clad panwallas or the dubious hangers-on.

In other words, the deep inroads of China and Pakistan to a fully willing Sri Lanka, hasn’t happened in the recent past, but decades ago, with or without India. So where does India lose or gain strategically? Should India do a catch up game vis-a-vis China and Pakistan? That is what Sri lanka perhaps wants – play with the insecurity of India – which a less wily India has been innocently following.

Interestingly, both China and Pakistan have no cultural commonality with Sri Lanka, nor do they share a border. The only commonality they have, compared to India’s progressive, democratic polity, is their fantastic human rights records.

India is Sri Lanka’s biggest trade partner, bulk of the cargo that goes through the Colombo port is from India; in its better days the Sri Lankan Airlines survived only on Indian passengers; its petty traders in Colombo survive on baggage-goods from Chennai and it is crazy over Bollywood movies and music. Their fashion shows and celebrity glossies even import Indian models.

Sri Lanka always makes India feel that it is special. President Mahinda Rajapaksa famously said: “we are a non-aligned country. Our neighbours are Indians. I always say, Indians are our relations. From the time of Asoka, we have had that culture, but that doesn’t mean we won’t get commercial benefits from others; from China, or Japan, or whoever. They will come here, they will build and they will go back. India comes here, they will build and they will stay. This is the difference.”

This is what India perhaps likes to believe. This is exactly the game the devious Sri Lankan regimes have been playing for years, whether it was former Presidents Premadasa or JR Jeyawardena. Premadasa even went to the extent of colluding with the LTTE to get the IPKF out of the country. What has India gained from Sri Lanka in the region’s geopolitics? Will Sri Lanka ever go against China and Pakistan in a crunch situation?

Almost impossible.

Therefore, the fact of the matter is that India has nothing to lose and should not lose sight of its principles of a plural society, secularism, democracy and human rights. India cannot and should not do a China game which also includes funding African despots and Pol-Potist regimes, and fooling poor countries of their natural resources.

Instead, India should play the same game in their backyards. Afghanistan and Vietnam are the way to go. In terms of Sri Lanka, it should develop deeper channels and ports in its own territory to checkmate Colombo and Hambontota and play trade politics on commodities such as tea, rubber, garments and palm-oil.

The UNHRC vote should serve as a blessing in disguise for India. Instead of being apologetic, India should get tough with Sri Lanka in terms of accountability and reconciliation. We have played the good neighbour far too long.

The propaganda literature from Sri Lanka following the second edition of the Channel 4 documentary is a clear giveaway that Sri Lanka’s design is not genuine reconciliation, but to present its majority population as magnanimous to a minority that is just 10 per cent of its population. This social engineering currently underway through militarisation and Sinhala occupation, preceded by a bloody war in which allegedly 40,000 Tamil civilians died, is what the British parliamentarians are also raising in their call on.

“The militarisation of the Tamil majority areas in the north of the island, and the curtailment of their economic, political and social rights, continues to increase tensions between already polarised communities and undermines prospects for peace.”

This should be India’s call as well. The international community will take care of the allegations of war crimes.