India-SL ties crying out for strategic shift

| | in Usual Suspects

Last week, I visited the beautiful home of local businessman Thirukumar Nadesan in a part of Colombo-7 that is so reminiscent of Kolkata’s Alipore of yore. There are three facets of Nadesan that strike me as significant. First, he is a Jaffna Tamil now living in Colombo; second, he is an extremely devout Hindu, with a fully functioning puja room and even a goshala in his back garden; and finally, his wife Nirupama, an MP for the ruling SLFP, is a niece of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Nadesan, who values his religious and cultural identity, has like many other Jaffna Tamils patronised the Ramanathaswamy temple in Rameswaram, just across the Palk Strait. Each year Nadesan would make it a point to go on pilgrimage to Rameswaram and then proceed to visit other temples in India. On January 10, 2012, while entering the temple for puja, he was set upon by a determined band of pro-LTTE activists who assaulted him and chased him out of the shrine. With no assurance of personal protection forthcoming from the state government, Nadesan hasn’t been able to re-visit the temple — although he has been to other temples in India.

As an Indian I find this assault on Nadesan’s rights as a practising Hindu outrageous. What is even more surprising is that none of our defenders of India’s ‘secular’ inheritance has deemed this to be an attack on religious freedom. There have, for example, been attacks on Buddhist pilgrims from Sri Lanka who use Chennai as a transit point for their journey to Bodh Gaya. And even Opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe faced mob fury when he visited Chennai three years ago.

Worst of all — and cricket-crazy Indians will understand this — for the past three years Sri Lankan cricketers have been targets of an unofficial ban against them playing any matches in Chennai.

To those engaged in formulating ‘nuanced’ policy towards the neighbourhood, these incidents may seem trivial and small details of some ‘misunderstandings’ vis-à-vis a small neighbour. But imagine a situation if an extremist body in Sri Lanka was to impose such a ban on Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s team or if a group of Hindus from India visiting the Sita shrine near Kandy was set upon by a clutch of Sinhala chauvinists. Wouldn’t the shrill TV channels be demanding strong Indian retaliation to avenge national dishonour, as they often do when Indian fishermen are arrested for straying into Lanka’s territorial waters?

It is healthy for foreign policy to be subjected to domestic scrutiny. However, when the interest takes the form of ill-informed rhetoric and mob action, it is time to put correctives in place. For too long, India’s policy towards Sri Lanka has been viewed exclusively through the prism of the Tamil question and the 30-year civil war that, mercifully, came to an end in May 2009. Indian diplomacy has scarcely been able to rise above debates over the 13th Amendment and the tensions that mark relations between the Northern Provincial Council and the central government in Colombo. There is an impression that India is the reserve army of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority in the North and East, an impression that translates into conviction with the Tamil National Alliance.

The problem with this preoccupation with only one aspect of Sri Lanka’s national life is that many more important questions are left either unaddressed or de-prioritised.

Many Indians would, for example, be surprised to learn that nearly 70 per cent of the freight traffic handled by the bustling Colombo part is devoted to India’s imports and exports. India needs an efficient Colombo port just as Colombo port needs Indian custom. There is total inter-dependence. India will benefit from the further upgradation of facilities on the Colombo waterfront and Sri Lanka stands to benefit from India’s rapid economic growth.

Take another factoid. Tourism accounts for nearly 25 per cent of Sri Lanka’s GDP and contributes immeasurably to generating local employment. And, of the tourists, nearly 70 per cent are from India. Add to this the investment of Indian entrepreneurs (both big and small) in the infrastructure of tourism and we see another facet of the deep economic linkages that bind the two countries.

How much of this economic bonding was government-driven and how much was a function of market logic is difficult to ascertain. However, considering the fact that Sri Lanka cannot market its tea to India or that there are serious impediments to the island selling its world-famous pepper and cinnamon to India, there is an unavoidable conclusion. Sri Lanka and India have forged deep business links despite the babus. This is something for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to ponder over.

The one area where the Government could have played a role, its intervention has been found wanting. Last year, the exhibition of Buddhist relics from Kapilavastu drew spectacular crowds in Sri Lanka. Much of these relics were sourced from the Indian Museum in Kolkata which seems to have neither the imagination nor the inclination to display much of what it possesses. The Madhya Pradesh Government, on the other hand, has been more forthcoming in forging links with Sri Lanka for Buddhist studies. However, the efforts have been patchy and there is need for a show of political will to drive the Buddhist heritage project.

I have been travelling to Sri Lanka from 1987, a time when the island was crippled by war. During my initial visits, I was fortunate to meet many of the political old-timers. Almost all of them had deep personal links with India forged during the 1940s and 1950s. The new generation of the Sri Lankan elite don’t share those experiences because somewhere along the way the two countries went their separate ways.

It is time to re-forge those links not through politics but by blending heritage with trade and commerce. Indo-Sri Lanka relations are crying out for a strategic shift.

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