Lankan reality, Indian conundrum

Lankan reality, Indian conundrum

When Velupillai Prabhakaran perished in May 2009, the long Eelam War ended with him – as did a phase in Indo-Lankan relations. For the best part of three decades, the Tamil Tigers had constituted a key deciding factor in the island's fraught relationship with the giant neighbour. Even after the India Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) fiasco and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi ended any possibility of open Indian support for the LTTE, the Tigers continued to influence bilateral relations – an elephant in the room that both sides were acutely aware of, but which neither publicly acknowledged. 
Fast friends: At a Colombo ceremony marking the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Sri Lanka, 1957
 
The possibility of another Indian intervention to save the LTTE (despite the lessons of the IPKF) might have ended with Rajiv's death. Yet the fear that New Delhi, particularly under a non-Congress administration or due to politico-electoral pressure from Tamil Nadu, would renew its patronage of the LTTE (indirectly or surreptitiously) never left Colombo. Once President Mahinda Rajapakse shifted to a strategy of winning the war at any cost, anticipating India's reactions and preventing any Indian response that could shift the politico-military balance in the LTTE's favour became matters of critical importance for Colombo officials. 
 
President Rajapakse needed to neutralise India, and he wanted to do so without making any political concession to the Tamils or compromising his cosy relations with China or Pakistan. He achieved this purpose by giving New Delhi a long economic rope (for instance, welcoming Indian investment), augmented with ample hope about a new devolution package. The president laboured to give Indian officials the impression of extreme flexibility – and so he was, albeit only in non-strategic matters. In short, Rajapakse, ever mindful of the fate that befell former President J R Jayewardene when he crossed India, endeavoured to portray himself as a simple, practical man open to the idea of a good deal, particularly with India. 
 
This image hid a less salubrious reality: President Rajapakse's complete unwillingness to make political concessions to the Tamils. Whenever New Delhi tried to ratchet up the pressure for a political solution, Rajapakse pretended to succumb; he would make extravagant promises and give specific deadlines, all to be forgotten the moment that Indian pressure abated. His creation of an All Parties Conference in June 2006, ostensibly to come up with a blueprint for a new devolution package, was a masterstroke that allayed Indian (and Western) anxieties. But simultaneously he endeavoured to roll back the political reforms and ideological transformations generated by the Indo-Lankan Peace Accord of 1987. For instance, using the ruse of a judicial ruling, the northeast was de-merged unilaterally; and the acceptance of the north and the east as the traditional homelands of Tamil-speaking people – a key postulate of the Accord – was dropped. 
 
So long as the Tamil Tigers survived and the war continued, India had some clout vis-à-vis Colombo. This was not sufficient to prod President Rajapakse into coming up with a political solution to the ethnic problem, but it did help in certain ways. But that was when the war still had to be won and the Tigers were very much alive. Today the war is won, Prabhakaran is dead, and whatever tactical influence India had is waning rapidly. The Tigers were Rajapakse's most significant weakness in his dealings with India, and post-war, that is no more. To put it at its crudest, Rajapakse can afford to ignore Indian concerns because he believes that India has no aces left, while he has two: China and Pakistan.  
 
China over Tamil Nadu
The West is manifestly unhappy with the Rajapakse administration, but for the West the Lankan issue is of little importance. Not so for India. Sri Lanka's geography and Tamil Nadu's demographics, China's ambitions and Pakistan's rivalry are compelling New Delhi to pay a disproportionate degree of politico-diplomatic attention to Colombo. And India's Lanka policy will have to be a balance of many contradictory considerations. New Delhi cannot afford to allow Sri Lanka to become a strategic ally of China; it also needs to limit Colombo's burgeoning economic and military relationship with Pakistan. On the other hand, it cannot ignore the plight of Lankan Tamils, or their need for a political solution, for fear of antagonising Tamil Nadu Tamils. Post-war, post-Tigers, India's relations with her tiny neighbour are assuming the shape of a classic Hobson's Choice – in which there is, really, no real choice at all. 
Historically there were two main impediments to a political solution to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka: Sinhalese supremacism and the LTTE. The latter is no more, but the former is today triumphantly ensconced in the heart of the Lankan state. In the Sinhalese-supremacist narrative, the Tigers were created by India (or, alternatively, the West or the Vatican) to destroy Lanka, the sole refuge of Sinhalese Buddhism. Consequently the 'Sinhala Only' language legislation and other such measures were not errors but necessary correctives to restore the 'natural balance' between the majority community and the minorities, which was destroyed by the colonialists. In this account, there are no Tamil (or minority) grievances, because as 'guests' in an exclusively Sinhalese-owned Sri Lanka they have no right to grievances. Since Rajapakse became president, this worldview has become dominant in the corridors of power and a staple of official propaganda.
 
The nature of the ethnic war cannot but have a bearing on the nature of the peace that follows, especially if the peace-builders are the same ones who made and won the war. Post-war, the task of peace-building is being approached in the same Sinhalese-supremacist manner in which the final Eelam War was waged and won: President Rajapakse denies the very existence of an ethnic problem, and is inimical to devolution. He subscribes to the point of view that Tamils do not have any specific grievance, and thus require no special concessions. Tellingly, Rajapakse's 2007 'political solution' proposed de-empowering the minorities and re-empowering the President – replacing provincial councils with district councils with less power, empowering the president to appoint all district chief ministers, and a senate whose members the president would have significant say in appointing. The unwillingness of this particular president to share power with anyone outside his family has further exacerbated his opposition to political-devolution, the end result being a rejection of a political solution as unnecessary and even dangerous. 
 
New Delhi might have finally realised that Rajapakse will not deliver a political solution, and could even move to disempower the provincial councils. And in a context characterised by an absent political solution and inadequate improvement in Tamil living conditions, the Lankan north could become re-radicalised, causing a reactive radicalisation in South India. A political solution is thus critical not only for Lankan peace and stability, but also for Indian stability. But as noted earlier, post-war, and post-Tigers, New Delhi has little capacity to push President Rajapakse into a more compliant mindset. Moreover, it cannot even express its displeasure with Colombo too strongly and too publicly, for fear of pushing Sri Lanka further into the Chinese orbit. 
India thus seems to have decided to place the China factor (rather than the Tamil Nadu factor) at the centre of its Lankan policy. Post-war, New Delhi has gone the extra mile to demonstrate that it can be as reliable an ally to Colombo as is Beijing. Today, the devolutionary agenda is obviously on the backburner; instead, New Delhi is focused on offering economic and financial aid, undertaking infrastructure projects (a Rajapakse fixation), and helping Colombo battle international onslaughts on its abysmal human-rights record. India has also offered to build houses for displaced Tamils, clearly an effort to speed up normalisation in the north and as a sop to Tamil Nadu.
 
Indophiles vs Sinophiles
And yet, India is bound to lose to China. The Tamil factor (including in Tamil Nadu) makes it impossible for India to imitate the permissive attitude desired by Colombo. Beijing has no such handicaps; it can embrace Sri Lanka completely and support its actions unconditionally. During the 1980s, the Jayewardene strategy of wooing the West as a counter to India backfired because, for Washington as for Moscow and London, New Delhi mattered far more than Colombo did. At the time, China was a record-level regional power; today, of course, that has changed massively. In consonance with its new international gravitas, Beijing is making concerted efforts to build a chain of allies and client states, and is more than willing to stand foursquare behind Sri Lanka vis-à-vis India and perhaps even the West (for instance, Colombo can rely on Beijing to prevent any UN Security Council resolution on the human-rights situation in Sri Lanka). 
 
Even as he draws closer to China, President Rajapakse has not completely abandoned efforts to win over New Delhi. He does not want Indian enmity, but he wants to avoid it on his own terms. To win India's friendship he is not willing to make concessions to Tamils because doing so could disenchant his Sinhalese base, but he is willing to make economic concessions. For instance, in late 2010 when Sri Lanka was calling for investors for offshore oil drilling, the first option was given to India.
 
Will India be satisfied with this approach? Perhaps, in the hope that a policy of constructive engagement would be more fruitful than hostile disengagement, so long as the Tamil Nadu factor remains dormant – a relatively safe bet, in the absence of a major upheaval in the island's north or an act of combative Sinhalese supremacism. This smooth sailing could be interrupted during election seasons in India, or if a non-Congress administration is elected to office in New Delhi. Pakistan too could become a serious concern, as Islamabad's security establishment has close relations with Sri Lanka's defence authorities, fostering anxiety in New Delhi. The possibility that Colombo could become mired in these games, possibly inadvertently, cannot be entirely ruled out.
 
Likewise, President Rajapakse's policy of keeping India interested while moving further into the Chinese orbit could eventually prove costly, should Sri Lanka become a locus for a Sino-Indian cold war. In turn, this could create another schism in the already fragmented Lankan society, between Indophiles and Sinophiles. The possibility that the fault lines of this schism could fall along ethnic lines – with most Sinhalese backing China and most Tamils backing India – cannot be ruled out. 
 
The best antidote to such a potential situation would be to diversify Sri Lanka's dependence, to cultivate other countries for aid and investment. But given President Rajapakse's unwillingness to deal with Tamil concerns, the possibility of forming counterbalancing friendships with the West is limited. The danger of being sucked into other peoples' battles is clear, but thanks to the Sinhalese-supremacist blinders of the Rajapakse regime, this unenviable situation could well end up as Sri Lanka's fate. 
 
Tisaranee Gunasekara is a writer based in Colombo.
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