"Beware, Mahinda"

Now that the glitz and glamour of the Bollywood parade is over, notwithstanding the fact that there was no show by most of the mega-stars, we need to analyse the more serious issues relating to Indo-Lanka bilateral relations.

Whether the net result of rushing in to host the IIFA event had a positive or negative impact can be gone into later, but it clearly revealed the intricate connections the LTTE had with the Tamil Nadu film industry which itself is intertwined with the state's political system. Now that we have played good hosts to the visiting Indians at whatever cost, President Mahinda Rajapaksa goes to India next week in this backdrop to discuss serious issues of state and bilateral relations.

All the Indian 'sweetmeats' will be laid out for him - offers of succulent multi-million dollar contracts to rebuild the Palaly airport, the Kankesanturai harbour, the broken railway line and various projects aimed at the reconstruction of the war-ravaged North. These projects are not on outright grants by the Indian Government; they are loans on credit lines. Translated into ordinary language, these are loans that need to be paid back some time by Sri Lanka. In return, the Indian authorities want to ensure the exclusivity of their companies, and their work force for these projects. This means a greater Indian presence in the north.

In addition, this newspaper ran the story last week that the Indians have requested that they be allowed to open Deputy High Commissions (they call them Assistant High Commissions) in Jaffna and Hambantota in addition to the full-fledged diplomatic mission they have in Colombo and the Deputy High Commission they already have in Kandy.

Till recently, the Indian authorities only wanted to open a Consulate in Jaffna having already opened a visa office in the northern capital. In the midst of raised eyebrows -- but little or nothing else by the Sri Lankan authorities - (because a visa office exists and Jaffna does not have too many Indian nationals as far as is known), the only reason that could be attributed to India's request to have a diplomatic office in Jaffna is to keep a tab on 'political developments' in the North under cover of diplomatic immunity. Now they have brazenly upped the stakes as our Diplomatic Editor pointed out last week and are asking for the opening of a Deputy (or Assistant) High Commission in Jaffna. As if this was not enough, they have now gone on to ask for the opening of a Deputy High Commission in Hambantota also. What justification they have for this is absolutely unknown. Jaffna at least has some connections with India, and India might say that the security of its southern flank is of utmost importance to it and all that. But why Hambantota? The Government must know the difference between a Consulate (that must engage only in consular affairs) and an Assistant High Commission.

The only reason our Diplomatic Editor said was because of Indian fears of the growing Chinese influence in the Hambantota district, particularly in view of China's involvement in the harbour development project. But now, there are reports that it was the Sri Lankan Government that invited the Indians to open up a mission in Hambantota. In the absence of any official statement the country remains in the dark. Now is Sri Lanka going to agree to India setting up camp in all parts of Sri Lanka? Is India arm-twisting President Rajapaksa into yielding to all its demands? Will President Rajapaksa who told the West to 'go to hell' when it tried to stop the ‘war against the LTTE’ have the stomach to tell the Indians the same?

Only ten days ago did the Foreign Office receive a huge dossier from its counterparts at the South Block in New Delhi containing all these demands. The dossier was a precursor to a planned visit by Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa who has been assigned the task of relations with India in place of the External Affairs Minister. Minister Rajapaksa froze, they say, when he saw the Indian demands, and cancelled his trip. The excuse put out was the Presidential directive that no Minister should go abroad due to the flood situation. The dossier contained demands relating to the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) which clearly is of great concern to Sri Lankan business, trade and industry. The President was asked if this was the great Indian rope trick. Was Sri Lankan commerce to be strangled and eventually left hanging by the Indian 'dead rope'? It prompted the President to say that he will not subjugate the mathtrubhumiya (Motherland) to anyone. Will he have to compromise? Shouldn't these Indian demands be tabled in Parliament?

According to diplomatic circles, the pressure emanates not so much from the political leadership of New Delhi, but from the 'South Block of the South Block' - the preponderant senior staff at the Indian External Affairs Ministry who have for years wielded great influence in the running of India's foreign policy. Those at the helm of the Indian Establishment have been posted to Sri Lanka, and understand very well that the natural affinity and affection of the Sri Lankans towards India can easily be tested by the Indian establishment's hegemonistic policies.

The machinations have also not necessarily been subtle. The Indian media have often sided with the establishment when it comes to their foreign relations. Last Monday, NDTV's Chennai bureau had a one-sided documentary on how with the war over, Tamil Nadu fishermen were being harassed by the Sri Lanka Navy; prompting a strong denial from the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in New Delhi.

One cannot forget that the root cause of Lanka's thirty years of misery, death and destruction was the actions of India and its Establishment; both the political leadership of Indira Gandhi and the 'Brahmins' at the South Block together with its external spy agency, RAW. The Indians are still fingering their southern neighbour - asking for the implementation of the 13th Amendment for devolution (while facing a growing Maoist/Naxalite insurgency themselves).

The Bollywood stars who were mobbed in Colombo this week by some of their ardent fans will probably not know that they were the butt-end of jokes as well by another section; and that there was a time when the Indians were hated here, not so long ago. But as the Buddha, India's greatest gift to this island-nation told his disciple, "Beware, Ananda" to the temptations that are on offer in life, all we can say is "Beware, Mahinda" when you go to India and they throw these laddus, boondi, jelabis and gulab jamuns at you.

One does not want to sound alarmist, but relations between states, big or small should be based on mutual respect. It must be understood that no one side should be in a perpetual state of superior bargaining power.

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