Pre-independence, an influential view was that Sri Lanka was too small to stand by itself as a political and economic unit, hence constitutional arrangements for a federation of nations had been part of the discourse between Sri Lankan and Indian leaders-in-waiting. However it’s doubtful such a plan for integration could have been operationalised given the [...]

Sunday Times 2

Is Sri Lanka an Indian city?


Pre-independence, an influential view was that Sri Lanka was too small to stand by itself as a political and economic unit, hence constitutional arrangements for a federation of nations had been part of the discourse between Sri Lankan and Indian leaders-in-waiting.

However it’s doubtful such a plan for integration could have been operationalised given the number of challenges in defining relations with India in the first forty years of independence, including concerns on the huge numbers of indentured workers from South India, fears of illegal immigration and the spread of communism. In fact, all of the key bilateral negotiations, citizenship for the indentured labour, defining the maritime boundary and the sovereignty of Kachchitivu island, once successfully concluded, served to mark a process of physical separation between Sri Lanka and India.

India's influencing is increasing in Sri Lanka, especially in Jaffna

Today, with the rise of India and China and the US pivot to Asia, strategic analysis starts with Sri Lanka’s geographic location at the centre of the Indian Ocean. Yet geography is not everything. Let us take the comparison with two other port cities, Hong Kong and Singapore, which, disproving the negative view of small size, are thriving alongside huge continental powers.

At a recent foreign policy forum organised by the Lakshman Kadirgarmar Institute, Professor Chin Leng Lim gave a brilliant presentation on the constitutional structures of Hong Kong and Singapore which had shaped their different destinies and economic diplomacy strategies.

The commonalities included low taxes, services, cosmopolitan communities and common law jurisdiction. However, Singapore saw the advantage of becoming a “global city drawing sustenance from the international economic system”, concluding its early FTA with the far-away United States. Hong Kong with its “restrictive” economic and diplomatic space, has followed the path of greater integration with China hence its description by Prof Lim as a “Chinese City”.

Comparison of the different economic strategies followed by Singapore and Hong Kong raises the question of where Sri Lanka sees its comparative advantage — should the island follow a strategy of closer integration with the neighbouring big power or pursue an independent line, seeking the benefits of both regional and global partners depending on economic and defence needs?

The latter strategy evidently calls for forward thinking, robust research, consensual policy making and nimble diplomacy. Two points need to be taken into consideration in respect of Sri Lanka, one, the polarisation of politics since the armed conflict in the island which has impeded the evolution of an independent bipartisan foreign and economic policy having the broad support of its population and two, the long held view of the neighbouring big power that Sri Lanka falls within its natural defence perimeter.

Indian strategic thinking is well known since the writings of Panikkar albeit its rejection by a Sri Lankan leader of that time as tantamount to the proclamation of a “Monroe Doctrine” for South Asia”. The consistency of Indian naval strategic theory is remarkable as seen in the secret annexures to the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Agreement which established a strategic “block”, inter-alia, on the use of the Trincomalee oil tank farm and all the ports in the island for “military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests”.

More recently, in 2016, the former Indian National Security Adviser offers a similar argument… “Sri Lanka is an aircraft carrier parked fourteen miles off the India coast. This is the perpetual dilemma of India’s Sri Lanka policy: We must engage in order to defend our interest in keeping Sri Lanka free of antagonistic outside influences…”

Given these constraints, can Sri Lanka achieve an independent economic policy best suited to its own needs? History records that Sri Lankan rulers were able to maintain commercial advantage over the competition from neighbouring South India because of the viability of the ports around the island offering security, logistics, religious facilities, leisure pursuits etc. Thus, Mantai’s fame as a “trade emporium” lasted until the Chola invasions destroyed its stability with the effect of shifting the international trade to Arikamedu in India. Sri Lanka was also an ancient hub for knowledge and the arts from which we probably derive the mainsprings of creativity witnessed even today.

The beauty of the island, the multicultural atmosphere, friendship with all, attracted visitors from around the world. Protecting and nurturing these advantages endowed by our heritage will give the island the strength to pursue an independent destiny.

However, it seems that our political leaders have decided otherwise. Subsequent to the economic reforms in India in the early 1990s it saw a partner in Sri Lanka signalled by the signing of its first FTA. Subsequently India’s Sri Lanka policy maintains a “disengagement” with local politics, which is to be welcomed. But in the pursuit of economic synergies, have our local policy makers taken cognizance of whether Sri Lankan jobs and export opportunities are at risk? With globalisation, high end garment factories from Sri Lanka, for example, are moving overseas from India to Bangladesh and even to the United States under the new Trump dispensation.

Should we not take cognizance of local expertise and business requirements for expansion in-country? The Dutch hospital once offered to a foreign hotel developer is a good example of re-development under local expertise preserving a historical space, with design assets, housing local entreprises and financially viable.

Today all the talk is of closer integration with India and penetrating that huge domestic market. Policy makers on both sides have targeted new transport connectivity by sea, rail and air. Yet there is public resistance on both sides to the land bridge — the ultimate connect. We need to keep in mind that Sri Lanka’s major exports now go to the UK and the US where there are transparent procedures and a fair playing field. How can the same be achieved in the Indian market with its competitive products and complicated rules emanating from both its federal structure and the Tamil Nadu factor blocking the closest gateway? Until the problems of the ISLFTA are resolved, public opposition will continue to further liberalisation under ETCA.

Since the end of the armed conflict in the island, the Indian footprint in Sri Lanka has been multiplying through trade, development cooperation and investment. Looking at Jaffna today, one may think it is already an Indian city. Newly constructed houses, shops and hotels in outward appearance and interior décor bear the Tamil Nadu influence, erasing the beauty of the old heritage assets. The news and cultural influences from India dominate tv and radio channels. Unlike in the south with its cacophony of diverse religious calls, in Jaffna one hears mainly Hindu devotional songs. But all is not well in Jaffna – it seems there is rising alcoholism and drug use as well as youngsters on motor bikes imitating gangsters from Tamil Nadu films recalling the prophetic film by Asoka Handagama made years ago, Ini Avan, which also touched on the streak of brutal behaviour towards women.

The Sri Lankan and Indian coast guard have their work cut out to patrol the Palk Strait for illegal fishing, as well as large scale smuggling of drugs and gold. Measuring unofficial transactions between the two countries has been undertaken only by one researcher, Sarvananthan Muttukrishna in 1994 when he suggested these were “sizeable”. Can these negative trends lead to another uprising in the North and will that have the support of interested parties in Tamil Nadu? Analysts based in Chennai opine that the secession issue in Sri Lanka is no longer of concern to the Tamil Nadu public and that fervent supporters of Eelam like Nedumaran and Vaiko were in fact rejected by the electorate. Yet others warn that there are strong financial links between Tamil Nadu lobbies and the Sri Lankan diaspora, the implication of which needs to be examined.

(The writer is a retired Foreign Service diplomat)

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