Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is currently on his second visit to India within two years since the unlikely ‘rainbow’ coalition of his United National Party (UNP) and the faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) under President Maithripala Sirisena came to power in a stupendous election in January 2015. One of the earliest promises made by Wickremesinghe’s government was to restore ties with India which, under the former government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, had sunk to their lowest levels.
“We will improve relations and seek stronger economic ties with India,” Wickremesinghe had told this writer in an interview on the eve of the historic election that had brought the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine to power. “But that does not mean we will be hostile to China or Pakistan.”
Despite cross-border terrorism from Pakistan and repeated attacks on India’s civilian and military establishment, New Delhi is not so naive as to expect other countries, no matter how closely linked to India through religion or culture, to entirely break off diplomatic relations with, or launch hostilities against the two other nuclear powers in the neighborhood. After all and despite the Uri attack and all the continuing aggression by Pakistan, New Delhi itself has not cut off all ties with Islamabad. (Yet).
Still, it was a welcome and clear signal of solidarity that Bhutan, Bangladesh and even Afghanistan (with whom India does not share a marine or land border other than in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir), also pulled out of the Saarc summit scheduled in Islamabad. More importantly, those countries clearly gave the same reasons as India for doing so: terrorism sponsored by Pakistan and growing interference in their domestic affairs by “one country”.
But for about three days after four Saarc countries had pulled out of the summit, Colombo was relatively silent. At one point, the silence was so deafening that it almost seemed as though Pakistan and Sri Lanka would hold the summit on their own.
When the statement from Sri Lanka’s foreign office finally came, it referred vaguely to an “unconducive environment” as a reason for Colombo’s withdrawal from the summit. The statement however, repeated the mandatory denouncement of terrorism “in all its forms”. There was a careful and obvious avoidance of referring to “Pakistan”.
When questioned by this writer at a press meet earlier this week, Wickremesinghe shrugged and said that the delay in withdrawing from the Saarc summit was due to logistical reasons. As far as not mentioning Pakistan is concerned, he said it was merely because Sri Lanka itself had not faced terrorism at the hands of that country.
To be fair to Sri Lanka, New Delhi has nobody to blame except itself. It is no secret that India under Rajiv Gandhi hosted, trained and armed the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which waged a brutal 30-year-long civil war in Sri Lanka. That Sri Lanka had objected to that support in protest of at least one earlier Saarc conference and was ignored by India, is also a known fact.
But after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by an LTTE suicide bomber in 1991 and despite the extremely loud – and at times downright criminal – antics of some Tamil Nadu groups ostensibly for ‘the Tamil cause’ in Sri Lanka, New Delhi steered well clear of Sri Lanka’s war against the Tigers.
While western countries, with an eye on Sri Lanka’s crucial geographical location (at the cross-roads of oil tanker shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean) and immense natural resources, have predictably slammed Colombo for alleged “human rights excesses” during the war, India preferred to sit on a fence for the most part. It was in pursuit of a quieter bilateral policy with Colombo instead.
The turning point in Sri Lanka-India relations came when the former Sri Lankan government under Rajapaksa decided – wisely – to ignore repeated western interference and enforced ceasefires – and gave the Sri Lankan army a free hand to decimate the Tigers. Before it could do so in May 2009, the Sri Lankan army needed help. But when India refused everything other than ‘soft equipment’, Colombo turned to the willing arms of Pakistan and China. That was the beginning of the “beautiful relationship” between Islamabad and Colombo – one that permeated even Colombo’s intelligentsia. It bloomed to the extent that the editor-in-chief of a leading independent daily of Sri Lanka tried unsuccessfully to order this Delhi – based writer to desist from using the P – word even in passing (hard to do, when writing a piece on Kashmir or on Nobel Prize winner Malala Yusufzai), admittedly under stern instruction from the Pakistan high commission in Colombo.
Undoubtedly, the relationship between Colombo and New Delhi is far warmer under Sri Lanka’s new government. And in any case, juggling diplomacy to the benefit of one’s own country is the prerogative and raison d’être of any foreign office.
But if Rajapaksa was accused of “playing China against India”, then it is obvious – if understandable – that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is now doing the same with Pakistan.
At the press meet in Delhi, Wickremasinghe, whose advise to India to “address cross-border terrorism through dialogue” on the heels of India’s surgical strike was absurdly similar to the very utterances by the West that Sri Lanka ultimately rejected to defeat the Tigers, even hinted that if India did not do so, Sri Lanka could form “other alliances”.
The not-so-subtle ‘hint’ will go down well with India-bashers who abound in Colombo’s elite circles (though not in formerly war-savaged areas where India has built railways, dredged and cleared harbours, conducted de-mining operations and built houses for the displaced) and secure votes for the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine, should these become necessary again in the near future.
But Wickremesinghe’s ‘threat’ is hardly going to make India quake in her boots.
Sri Lanka’s own official websites list India as the country’s largest trading partner. It is the largest export destination for Sri Lankan products. Indian tourists make the largest single group of tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka. India is among the top five investors in Sri Lanka.
Of course, Colombo can form new associations with Pakistan and China, the two countries that came to its aid in its hour of need. But would such a grouping find other takers within South Asia? Or western nations willing to bypass India to trade with a group that includes a country which has proven itself as the epicenter of terrorism? And in any case, to what extent would any group without India be a ‘South Asian’ one?
Further, it is no secret at all that Saarc is now defunct. At the best of times, the grouping has been a mirror image of the over-bloated and in the interim, equally irrelevant and humongous overpaid bureaucracy called the United Nations (UN).
To that extent and given Prime Minster Narendra Modi’s keenness to get the development wagon rolling with or without Pakistan, the events leading to the cancellation of the Saarc summit in Islamabad have provided the optimal opportunity to sound Saarc’s death knell. New Delhi will now work with renewed vigor at the forthcoming joint summit of the Brics countries with BIMSTEC, a joint forum that will hold the promise of larger outreach for debt-ridden countries like BIMSTEC member-state, Sri Lanka.
India has set itself on the path to isolating Pakistan, both internationally and regionally. Sri Lanka will have to understand and accept this fact if it wants good relations with India and is keen to hop on the bandwagon of economic growth led by regional superpower India.
But Colombo would be well-advised to closely calibrate its relations with Islamabad. That is, if it doesn’t want its Muslims – the country’s fast-growing, second largest minority – to be overwhelmed, swamped and ultimately dominated by Pakistan’s dangerous, home-grown and bloody breed of Waha’bi groups who kill with impunity in the name of establishing Islam. To seek India’s help at that stage may be too late.(First Post)