I was honoured last week to be invited to a Conference on the ‘Changing Scenario in South Asia: Leveraging Economic Growth for Collective Prosperity’ organized by the Centre for Rural and Industrial Development in Chandigarh. Indian think tanks have always impressed me, and participating in discussions with the range of intellects they bring together has always been a pleasure as well as a learning experience.
This particular Centre was not one of those that is associated with government, like IDSA, the superb strategic analysis outfit that was almost simultaneously hosting another dialogue of particular interest to Sri Lanka. But CRID also attracts government attention and support, as was apparent from the fact that the Conference was opened by the Indian Minister for External Affairs. This indicates the interest the Indian government has in independent thought and analysis, and suggests the direction we too should move in. We must begin consultation of a wider scale, and building up consensus in the many areas in which that would be so easy, if we are to harness all our energies to pursue the immense task of development and national integration that we must now concentrate on.
The Conference was intended to cover a broad range of topics, and speakers were asked to choose from a range of issues, from Economics to Religion and Ethnicity. I thought of addressing two concerns together, namely Security as well as Ethnicity, since it seems to me that, in the current context, they are inextricably linked. I thought however that I should think in terms of cooperation, since we are in great danger of turning our backs on this, both internally and regionally. The solipsistic mindset that seems to dominate national discourse, following the recent vote in Geneva, needs to be overcome, if our national interests are not to be sacrificed on the altar of big power politics.
I have always believed that, to ensure our security, we must have good relations with India. The disasters that happened in the eighties made it clear that, if India were hostile, no one else would come to our rescue. And though commentators with no sense of time or causality still attack India for encouraging terrorist movements in the early eighties, the simple fact is that we started the distrust by trying to become proxies of the West in the Cold War. Unfortunately the West in those days – and perhaps now – has a polarizing view of international relations, and demanded total loyalty, which was combined with unremitting hostility to India, which it saw as a Soviet ally.
Hence Jayewardene’s refusal to allow India the use of the Trincomalee oil tanks and instead his offer of them to a firm that had worrying connotations for India, hence the effort to set up a Voice of America station in Iranawila, hence indeed the attempt to persuade America to have a base in Trincomalee – which I don’t think they were particularly interested in, because the British had obligingly driven the inhabitants of Diego Garcia from their homes so the Americans could take the place over.
That these were India’s concerns, not support for a separate state of Eelam, became obvious – if it was not apparent on first principles – when they ensured that these efforts to involve Sri Lanka in the Cold War ceased. They did this through the Annexures to the Indo-Lankan Accord, which was clearly of more interest to them than the internal political settlement, as was seen by their commitment to destroying the LTTE in the war that then broke out.
Unfortunately they did not succeed, for which many Sri Lankans blame President Premadasa and the support he gave the Tigers. But that is not the whole story, for we must remember the internal dynamics in India, that led to the defeat of Rajiv Gandhi’s government. It was after all the government of V P Singh that obliged Premadasa by withdrawing the IPKF and allowing the Tigers to rise again from the ashes. And I am told by diplomats who were in India in the period that followed that Rajiv Gandhi kept open his contacts with Sri Lanka, and would probably have come to Premadasa’s assistance when he came back to power, given that Premadasa, who was always quick to learn, had recognized his mistake. It was this perhaps that sealed Gandhi’s fate, not just the Tiger desire for revenge.
What all this indicates is that, while we must ensure mutual understanding with India, we must also be aware of their domestic political constraints. These are not as potty as ours, because at least the two major parties in India work together generally on foreign policy issues, aided by a thoroughly professional diplomatic service. But, just as we expect India to make allowance for the idiosyncratic pronouncements of all our experts on foreign policy, so we should realize that we must make allowance for the different interests that contribute to policy with regard to Sri Lanka. And while we must deplore the excesses of those who have always had a terrorist agenda, we must realize that this does not apply to the main parties in Tamilnadu, which in their different ways have stood firm at crucial moments against terrorist pressure and propaganda, at any rate after 1987.
I believe this makes sense on moral as well as intellectual grounds. But it is also the only practical approach, for we must realize the idiocy of making the same mistake as we made in 1987. To assume China would come to our rescue against Indian hostility is absurd. And in any case, Chinese foreign policy, like Indian, is not based on polarities and exclusivity. So to promote hostility against India, as many commentators do now, just as they did in the eighties, will certainly not be to China’s taste. The taste of the West in the eighties was of a different sort, but we, like the rest of the world, should really grow up now.