Sri Lanka’s Petition

The Dynamics among the countries of South Asia has changed dramatically with Sri Lanka´s open and unabashed call for New Delhi´s help for military and, failing that, humanitarian assistance for a possible evacuation of its troops from the Jaffna Peninsula.

The relations between the members of SAARC have long belaboured the fiction of one-country-one-vote. When it comes to sheer geopolitical weight, it is the economic power, population size, geographical spread and centrality, as well as military might of India, that overwhelms. Unlike the , European Community or ASEAN, the SAARC region is dominated by one power  like no other, to the extent that even satellite imagery of South Asia essentially defines the coastline of India.

This overwhelming India-centricism of South Asia becomes obvious when a crisis as overwhelming as Sri Lanka´s current one overtakes. Colombo, one of the more ´self-confident´ capitals of SAARC, has openly called for military support from New Delhi, essentially pleading it to act as regional policeman. While some aspects of the the India-Pakistan relationship have their own dynamic, this Sri Lankan invitation is bound to lead to a readjustment of expectations and obligations all over South Asia. The Sri Lankan example demonstrates that when push comes to shove and a crisis as critical as national bifurcation looms, governments of the region (barring Pakistan´s) will have no compunction in asking for Indian involvement military intervention if necessary. Realpolitik and governmental survival will override all other considerations, including those of national, cultural and historical exclusivity. ´Sovereignty´, in a sense, to be saved by inviting its wresting.

The lesson from the Sri Lankan request for Indian military assistance will be particularly instructive for Nepal (with its officially open border with India) and Bangladesh (with its much longer —porous — border with India), because these countries do not even have the psychological across-the-waters distance of a Sri Lanka removed from the South Asian mainland.

There has not been an instance quite like this when, late in history, a South Asian state has gone all-out seeking military help from neighbour India. Situations have come close to it, though. In Nepal, India brokered the deal whereby the Nepali Congress took over from the feudal Ranas in 1950. The Indian armed forces came powerfully to the aid of the Mukti Bahini in 1971 and helped deliver Bangladesh as an independent country. Also in 1971, India and Pakistan both sent arms (and India, pilots) to help the Sri Lankan army put down a Marxist uprising by Sinhala youth. 1988 was when Indian commandos rescued President Maumoon Gayoom from the clutches of a brief uprising. Most significantly, in 1988-89, the Indian Peacekeeping Force was despatched by Rajiv Gandhi to Jaffna, with a brief to help the Sri Lankan Tamils but ending up instead fighting the LTTE until the ignominious retreat of 1990.

While each of these instances had New Delhi reaching beyond its territory to intervene in a neighbouring country, in none of them (other than in the case of little Maldives) had a sovereign state voluntarily requested aid to keep itself together. While this turn of events will have mightily pleased the hardline strategists in New Delhi, what this means for the relationships between the countries of South Asia, and whether it will enhance India´s own standing as a regional and Asian power, will be seen in the days ahead.

As the pragmatist would say, perhaps the make-believe equation of the past should change. The smaller countries of the region know that India has the military might, and they might as well make use of it when a crisis threatens the very existence of the state and India will not be found wanting in making its move, all other conditions remaining equal. If India is the regional protector of last resort, then why not give Colombo the credit for having called a spade a spade?

But the situation is perhaps a bit more complex than that. Will we now need a new model for regional cooperation, now that the fictionaLequality among the large and small within SAARC has been so effectively given the lie? What will be the stance of New Delhi vis-a-vis its neighbours, with proof now of what the smaller countries will do when the chips are down?

Before any of these questions are answered, the world and South Asia will first have to await a denouement in the north of Sri Lanka.

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