Old feuds were forgotten, the old hatchet buried and the old adage that a nation ‘doesn’t have permanent friends, only permanent interests’ shunted aside when a change of fortunes and a change of attitude made New Delhi roll out the red carpet of welcome to the returning prodigal who came to genuflect and proclaim kinship [...]


Big Brother India is family, China just a business partner

New Delhi rolls the red carpet to Lanka’s new PM whom it once wanted toppled from power

Old feuds were forgotten, the old hatchet buried and the old adage that a nation ‘doesn’t have permanent friends, only permanent interests’ shunted aside when a change of fortunes and a change of attitude made New Delhi roll out the red carpet of welcome to the returning prodigal who came to genuflect and proclaim kinship as the gateway to India’s heart.

The tail end of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term of office as President saw Indo-Lanka relations take a nose dive after Sri Lanka steadfastly refused to tear herself away from China’s stringed embrace and return to India’s beckoning arms that had once jealously held her close.

Manmohan Singh, India’s then prime minster, waved in earnest and implored with fervor but Rajapaksa was blithely lost in trance, fixated ‘pon Xi Jinping’s captivating Dragon Dance to notice the frantic overtures that were being made for him to come back to the fold.

FAMILY COMES FIRST: Indo-Lanka relations hit a new high as Lanka returns to the family fold

The unkindest cut, the deepest cut that bled and hurt the most, was that the suitor, this Xi Jinping–come-lately, was India’s enemy number one who had wooed and won Lanka’s hand and swept her off her feet by showering gifts without divulging they came attached with an exorbitant  price tag.

Spurred India bided her time to eat the dish best eaten cold.  She did not have to wait for long to have her appetite for revenge sated. The opportunity arose when it was Colombo’s turn to hold the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November 2013 with then Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa taking centre stage playing host to a cluster of leaders whose countries had once been colonised by Britain.

The Crown would, of course, be represented by Queen Elizabeth who is the traditional Head of the Commonwealth but the crowning jewel in it, the Kohinoor diamond, would be India’s Prime Minister Singh without whose indispensable presence the meeting will fail to be regarded a success for the host country.

The queen promptly sent her regrets expressing her inability to attend in person but as a consolation crumb detailing her son Charles to make a cameo appearance on her behalf. Now all depended on the attendance of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. To lose the presence of the present monarch of England may be considered as unfortunate but to lose the Star of India as well would be pure negligence.

The importance of Singh at the gala event was not lost on the Rajapaksa Government; and no stone was left unturned to secure his participation. As a final flourish Foreign Minister Prof G. L. Peiris turned delivery boy to personally handover the gilded invitation of the Lankan President to India’s Prime Minister. If the personal touch extended to Singh and Singh alone was intended to elicit a prompt positive reply, it failed to work its magic. Peiris returned home empty handed without answer.

After keeping the Lankan Government waiting for days on end in a chronic state of nail biting nervousness, Singh’s RSVP finally arrived.  It contained Singh’s regrets of his unavailability to grace the occasion and India’s undisguised snub of her refusal to break bread with the Lankan host and to hammer home the distaste it held toward his regime and its wish to see the last of him, to the Lankan people.

But worse was to follow. Exactly three months later on February 12, 2014, India severed the umbilical cord that had so bound the two countries for centuries; and, in one fell swoop, disowned Lanka from family membership.

Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid delivered a telling snub to Lanka when he declared to a visiting Sri Lankan media delegation in his New Delhi office: “We are not the big brother, we are just partners”. In other words, don’t call us big brother, you are no thambi of ours.

In one cutting sentence he effectively severed the ties that had stretched across the Palk Strait for centuries binding both nations in a special relationship of goodwill and cooperation born of a broad common cultural and religious heritage. The Indo-Lanka bond has been based on kinship, with India held up as Lanka’s big brother; and, in true Eastern fashion, Lanka has been quite comfortable to genuflect to the bigger and older sibling whose land gave birth to the core spring of her religion and the core source of her language, the hallowed land where the Buddha trod and set in motion the Wheel of the Dhamma.

But all sensed that India’s ire, as contained in External Minister Khurshid’s vitriolic statement, was directed not against the  people of Lanka but more toward its President for playing truant and allowing the Chinese ‘Road and Belt, Silk Route’ gambit succeed in Sri Lanka as well, against India’s security interests. This was evident a year later when the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi showed Indo-Lanka relations were back  on track by visiting Lanka as the first state  guest of the newly elected President Sirisena.

Since then much water has flowed under the bridge and the chequered fortunes of the Rajapaksas have turned full circle. And India, with its permenant interests at heart, has begun to court in earnest the unputdownable Rajapaksas who have made a truimphant comeback to the uplands of power.

Last November, not even 10 days after being sworn in as the newly elected President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s first ever state visit abroad as president was to New Delhi where he was given the right royal red carpet treatment by the Indian Government.  As a parting gift he was also given a 400 million US dollar credit line.

Last week it was the turn of his big brother Mahinda Rajapaksa who had once been the chief  protaganist of the Indo-Lanka rift, to be India’s honoured guest.  This time he was coming as Lanka’s Prime Minister. But this was not purely a courtesy call to present his credential to Big Brother India. As  the man in charge of the nation’s finance , he was a man on a mission: to keep the wolf from Lanka’s door and keep the home fires burning.

What would be his pitch? And would India buy it? After many years of being in India’s bad books for cavorting with the Chinaman despite big brother’s rebukes the seven-year curse of stepping on the Indian’s toes had to be exorcised before making the pitch for alms.

Last Saturday, whist being winged to New Delhi, Mahinda Rajapaksa may have, perhaps, mused on how President Jayewardene had once saved Lanka’s bacon when relations between the two countries had hit a sour patch. The strained situation was thawed only when President JR had ended his 1986 SAARC Summit speech in Bangalore with the moving words, ‘I am a lover of India, I am a friend of her people. I am a follower of her greatest son Gautama the Buddha’. It had won him the lost heart of India. Perhaps, he, too, would use his persuasive skills on those lines to make a stone yield water or a tortoise to give its feathers.

After his meeting with Indian Prime Minister Modi, the Lankan Prime Minister spoke to the Indian press. When the Hindustan Times asked him about Pakistan’s call for Sri Lanka  to condemn India’s move in Kashmir, his Indian heart winning sure fire answer was: “Whatever the view of any country, we will not get involved in the internal matters of India.’’

Then he made his claim to kinship, to special blood ties that make Lanka’s relationship with India singularly unique. ‘But remember this’, Mahinda Rajapaksa declared, ‘I always say India is our relation. Others are only friends.”

And there was more to follow to warm the cockles of India’s heart. Rajapaksa defined the nature of Lanka’s “strategic” relationship with China. “For the sake of development, China helped us, that is all there is to it. Our war had shattered our country, we needed help to develop, they were ready with the money, so why not?” he said.

Then Mahinda Rajapaksa who had always been extremely jealous of sharing the Eelam war victory with anyone and had always kept the kudos  to himself alone and to Lanka, admitted possibly for the first time in public on Indian soil: “Without India’s help, I don’t think we would have won the civil war in Sri Lanka.’’

No doubt, it would have been honey in Modi’s ear to hear Rajapaksa giving India the credit for the war victory, without which development would not have been possible in the first place; and for demoting the role of China to that of a business partner and no more. Chewed today, spat out tomorrow.

Then did the Maestro lay out his wares before the Indian press and, baring the empty bowl he had brought from the Lankan Treasury revealed the impoverished state of the country’s coffers which like Mother Hubbard’s cupboard now lay bare. He had made an appeal to the Indian Government, he said, to grant Lanka a grace period of three years of loan payments to India. The debt service payment due this year alone is US$ 169.7 million. Sri Lanka will have to settle US$ 182 million in 2021 and US$ 168 million in 2022. The total debt to India is approximately US $962 million

He told the Hindu newspaper, ‘I have asked India whether Sri Lanka could get a moratorium on all loan repayments for three years, until it can revive the economy. If the Indian government agrees to the request, then other governments might agree to do the same, including China.’

Lanka has borrowed from China US$ 5.2 billion, most of it taken by the Rajapaksa government between 2011 and 2014. Payment scheduled for this year is US$ 674.4 million. A case of biting off more than can be chewed.

With the pitch done, it was time for the Lankan Premier to go on pilgrimage. After visiting Varanasi and Buddha Gaya, he prayed at Tirupathi Kovil where a special Pooja was held. Then it was back to the capital to fly home on Tuesday.

The Indian Government’s reaction to Rajapaksa’s appeal has so far been positive. They would, no doubt, have been moved by the seeming destituteness of her neighbouring relation, who has bared to the world, no less, her pathetic plight. Is that why, though direct flights from New Delhi on the national carrier Srilankan were available to fly the Lankan Prime minister and his delegation home, India insisted from the largeness of her heart, that they fly on a specially chartered Indian flight courtesy of the Indian Government?

Perhaps they thought given the plea for grace, the cash strapped Lankan entourage couldn’t afford the return airfare.

To protest or not to protest? That’s the agitating question

THE PLACE: Near Galle Face Green

THE TIME: Just past 4pm

THE DATE: Any day now

Excuse me, are you the security guard here?

Yes, sir. What can I do for you?

Well good. I just want to know whether there is a spot here where I can protest? I was told that there was a site specifically reserved for protests?

Not to my knowledge, sir. You don’t mean the freedom of speech site, now do you?

Not exactly. I am not seeking for a spot to express an opinion. I just want to protest.

I am sorry, sir. We haven’t still come up with that one. We have the right of assembly enclosure but only to assemble peacefully and pass the time. No protests are allowed there, I am afraid. Hey, wait a minute. We opened this new spot only last week called the Agitation Site. You can give vent to all your pent-up grievances there without disturbing a soul. It seems right down your street. Will that do, sir?

Oh, no, not at all. You don’t get my point, now do you? I have come to protest at a government approved site reserved by royal edict to protest, not to agitate in the Agitation area.

Sorry. You are out of luck, sir, and far ahead of your time. We haven’t come to that stage yet, being sort of busy finding sites for people to exercise their rights in demarcated zones thereby guaranteeing in practice what the constitution lists on paper alone. Can’t you wait till the election is over and we have got our two third? You’re sure you can’t postpone whatever you’re protesting about till then?

Are you nuts or something? No, I cannot. Protests cannot be postponed like polls have been postponed in the past. Any delay is fatal to a protest. Either you protest now and be done with it or the protest is good as dead. A protest must be taken at the tide or you will be stranded in the ebb. Look, I am in an awful hurry to protest before the reason for it fizzles out and I go home unsatisfied with nothing to show for my day’s efforts. You have no idea what it’s like to have a protest pent up in you and then to suffer it dying in you without you giving it release.

Yes, yes, I understand what you mean. Tell you what, I’ll go through my Agitation area Guidelines manual and see whether I can fit you in under some allowed category. Now let me see. You’re not troubled or nervous, are you, by any chance?

THE AGITATION AREA NEAR GALLE FACE: If you got the agitation itch then this is the place to scratch it

No, I am not.

I see. So you are not troubled or nervous. Are you, by any chance, worried or angry? Is your heart like a ship on an agitated sea that has been visited by monsoon gales?

No I am not worried nor am I angry and I do not feel like an agitated sea. I only want to give vent to my healthy desire to protest, if not in the open air then at least in a barb wired closed site.

All right, all right, keep your shirt on, I am only trying to help you. I am only trying to see whether this agitation area can accommodate your individual want. Now let’s see the extended list. And whether by any broad definition your peculiar need can somehow be made to fit in with what is allowed here and what is not. It’s all contained in this little kurahan book.

What is that? 

Don’t you know? It’s the book of books that gives you all you need to know to be a good citizen. And what can be done and what cannot be done. Ah, here’s the section that deals with demarcated zones and the litany of the activities permitted only within those zones. Now what do we find under agitation area, let’s see. Do you want to do some stirring?

What do you mean stirring?

Well, you know, whisking, beating, churning, shaking, you know what I mean, anything to cause a turbulence?

I don’t know what you mean, except that all those activities describe agitation. I do not want to stir, beat, churn or shake anyone or anything or cause any turbulence in air, under sea or on ground. All I want to do is protest.

Come, come, now, no need to get so agitated. There’s plenty more on the list. Do you want to arouse, excite, provoke stimulate public feelings through discussion and debate?

Oh, no. Nothing of the sort. You think I am like that guy who taped his phone sex and leaked it to the public to excite their carnal feelings. No. I only want to protest.

Well, you are a difficult customer, now aren’t you? Now will this protest act of yours cause an uproar which will place the public in turmoil and lead to a tumult?

No, nothing so hot.  It’s just a protest. But is that hot stuff allowed in this agitation site?

Yes, most certainly, it’s allowed. It’s billed as one of our star attractions, though none has arrived yet on account of that.

 I’m not surprised that there have been no takers.

Why is that, sir?

Well, you expect a small group of people — which is all that can be crammed into this small enclosure — to say or do anything here that will cause an uproar, place the public in turmoil leading to a tumult when they will be penned in like lambs in this demarcated site and left alone far away from the madding rush of life’s colourful crowds, to bleat their hearts out till the cows come home and the cockerel comes to roost? You might as well ask them to wait till kingdom come.

Shh… mind your language, sir, fences have ears, remember you’re not in the ‘Free Speech’ area. You will get me also into trouble shooting your big mouth off in an unauthorised area. Anyway, I think I have run out all the approved activities listed under agitation and protest doesn’t come under it.

Will you please give it another try? I will read out what I think what a protest is all about and you see in your check list whether it’s there or not. Okay?

Fair enough. But I doubt pretty much it will be there.  Go ahead.

Can I make a strong complaint at this place?

You mean you want to protest against something? No, it’s not allowed here. You can get into a state of agitation or into a tizzy and talk about absolute tosh, but making a complaint, however strong or mild is simply not on. This is more of a place to stir things up, whip up something to a frenzy. Not the spot to hear some boring complaints being made.

Can I at least vehemently express my disagreement with something or someone?

No, sir, you can’t. That would be protesting. And that’s not permitted here. This is for agitation only.

Can I declare my opposition to anything?

Absolutely not. It is not that sort of place. Declaring your opposition would be an act of protesting. And that’s taboo. It does not fall within the ambit of agitation.  And has no business in loitering these precincts. Now if that makes you feel agitated, you are quite welcome to enter and work your agitation to boiling point. But if your poison is to peddle protest then you are as welcome here as the coronavirus is. Sorry, but rules are rules.

Okay, I understand that this ‘agitation’ joint is exclusively for agitated folks who are worried, troubled, angry or nervous over something and want to churn, stir, whisk and whip up something to a state of turbulence that may cause a disturbance, commotion, tumult or turmoil. And, let me tell you, I have no such issues. Neither do I have any desire to persist in perpetually canvassing a particular or a variety of political causes or theories and profusely labour to expound its intrinsic merits for the delectation of an unsuspecting public who will all die out of boredom at the end of it.  Let’s say, I have no intentions in that regard even as I am not suffering from psychomotor agitation, which can be due to both psychological and physical restlessness, and which can occur as a symptom of severe depression, schizophrenia, or other mental disorder.  It is to those to whom membership of this exclusive club is reserved and not to the likes of such as I, whose one and only predilection is to protest.

I told you so, sir. Protest is simply not on the menu, not an aperitif, not as the main course, nor as the dessert. We don’t cater to such pedestrian taste.

Well, maybe not here. But are you sure there isn’t someplace else? I distinctively remember the previous government announcing from the turrets that they intended to have a preserve for protests?

Yes, yes, yes but that never took off ground. Now people don’t even have a place to protest.

But why? After all that big hullabaloo?

There was a big protest against it. So the Government caved in and dropped the whole idea.

Of course, in the good old days, that old building that you can see over there, was used as a special place to protest. Those statues you see in front of it are statues of famous protestors there.  Yes, those were the days when they built statues for protestors. Then in the year I graduated from Peradeniya Campus, they shifted it to a lake and there it stagnates in its own mire, so grimy even for a lotus to be born.

So it’s just not my day then,
is it?

I guess so sir. And it may not be your day for a long time to come till a special open air camp is set up to hold protestors. But I’ll give you a tip. You can still protest on the road, sir. No law against that. It’s only for ‘agitation’ that you need this special place to agitate for this and that. But if it’s purely a protest, then every public road is yours to protest. Enjoy your right before the shepherd has shut it up in a sheep’s pen where you can bleat your protest for none to hear but your own protesting ilk.



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