Columns -Thoughts from London

Goodbye and all that

By Neville de Silva

Today I write finis to a column that has appeared regularly for almost 10 years. I move on to another assignment during which it would not be possible to contribute a regular column.

I hope this stoppage is only temporary. But that is in the hands of providence and the editor of this newspaper. But before I put my pen down, metaphorically speaking, there is one matter that needs a comment because it is so closely tied with Sri Lanka’s future and how the country moves forward in what many commentators have called the “post-war” era. Obviously they refer to what they see as a perceptible change in the military conflict in the face of successive defeats inflicted on the LTTE enemy in the battlefield and the seeming end of conventional warfare.

During the near ten years I’ve written this column from London, I’ve seen many changes to the Sri Lankan scene- changes in government, changes in domestic policy, changes in our diplomatic approach, sometimes characterised by nuanced responses as well as a reaching out to new interests. One thing however has remained constant. That has been the overwhelming presence-some might even say overpowering- of India. It is a geopolitical and geophysical reality that nothing can change. Sri Lanka’s bilateral relations with India might have undergone some shifts, some rethinking and adjustments as circumstances determined. But however we see India and whatever is done in our national interest, one thing we cannot do, because India is so vast, so very near and increasingly powerful, is to ignore our giant neighbour. India is a reality that simply cannot be wished away though some critics may wish to do so.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I wish to end almost a decade of writing this, particularly because of the anticipated visit ( at least at the time of writing) to Colombo of Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon who is no stranger to Sri Lanka having served here as High Commissioner not too long ago. Much will be written about his meetings with political leaders and officials here when he does come. Since I do not have the benefit of hindsight or privy to such discussions I leave that to commentators and opinion writers.

What does concern me however are some of the imperatives that determine the Sri Lankan and Indian stances in our bilateral relations and how an understanding of those could lead to a better relationship.
It is important to remember that our bilateral relations have had a chequered history following independence from Britain of both India and Sri Lanka. Only the other day I came across an article of mine in The Guardian (then called the Manchester Guardian) somewhere in 1973 which was headlined “Mrs Gandhi to allay fears of Indian Expansionism” that actually led the page. This is hardly the time to recall in detail the contents of that long report but it did set out some of the irritants that hindered a smooth relationship and fears among sections of the Sri Lankan population about what was seen as India’s “big brother” attitude.

In more recent years it was the JR Jayewardene government’s perceptible pro-western (particularly pro-US) foreign policy tilt that led to a souring of relations and eventually to Indian intervention in Sri Lanka in 1987. The outcome was the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that grew out of it and the setting up of the Northeast Provincial. It also led eventually to the LTTE spurning terms of the agreement and the subsequent armed clashes between the LTTE and the IPKF. The denouement was the withdrawal of the IPKF at the insistence of President Premadasa following the near anarchy caused by the JVP that went on a killing spree in opposition to the Indo-Lanka Accord, anarchy that was ultimately subjugated violently. In India the LTTE that had been nurtured and helped by India to become the dominant Tamil separatist force turned on its creators and assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, an act of stupidity that still rankles in the average Indian mind.

This brief history must stand as testimony and background to the search by the two countries for a via media that could accommodate each other’s concerns without falling under the spell of extremist elements in both of them that try to shore up their failing fortunes by preying on delicate balances created by coalition politics and the numbers game.

In the past couple of months, the political pressure exerted on the Indian central government by coalition partners and others in Tamil Nadu almost seemed to tip the scale in favour of a more forceful Indian approach to Sri Lankan domestic politics. This has not been helped by Sri Lanka’s own politicians such as the TNA which has been calling for Indian intervention in Sri Lanka once again. Speaking to the Indian media TNA leader R.Sampanthan said that India must decide what it should do in Sri Lanka as it has “the authority to stop the war.”

What does Sampanthan mean by the “authority”? Is it an authority bestowed on it by an international organisation such as the UN or by international law? Or is it an assumptive authority? It was External Affairs Minister Pranab Muhkerjee I think who said that India’s sovereignty stops at its frontiers. Is Sampanthan calling on India to violate that sanctity?

It is important to remember that though there has been an increasingly strident cry by Tamil Nadu politicians for New Delhi to send Pranab Mukherjee to Colombo it is his foreign secretary that is being sent to discuss bilateral matters. The Manmohan Singh government has not succumbed to Tamil Nadu pressures despite the threats to disrupt the central government.

Similarly it requires Sri Lanka to respond intelligently and with an eye on New Delhi to the implausible demands of sections of our domestic constituency that would like to improve their own political image by excessive chauvinism. In the end both India and Sri Lanka are confronted with terrorist threats and acts of terrorism. For India the threat of terrorism is largely external but not without domestic elements that enhance that threat. To Sri Lanka the threat is mostly domestic but with external support, some of which comes from India itself. India recognises that cross border terrorism affects not only that country but Sri Lanka as well.

Both are committed to fighting terrorism. It is for them to cooperate in a common cause. For ultimately it affects them both but more so India because it is a large country and terrorism can thrive more there than in Sri Lanka which is smaller than some of the Indian states.

Moreover as a nation aspiring to superpower status India needs to act with the great responsibility that such status imposes on a country. It must not only be but also be seen to be a great power that can shoulder such enormous responsibility with dignity.

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