When I was in Delhi last week, I was privileged to meet the Indian Minister of External Affairs who turned out, though he looks old and distinguished, to have been at Oxford while I was there – and to have succeeded Ravi Tennekoon as a Lecturer at Trinity College, before heading back to India to better things. I still recall Ravi telling me that he was giving up the position at Trinity – which seemed to my undergraduate enthusiasms all one could hope for – to get back into real life. Well, he is a barrister in London, when I believe he could have contributed much more either to Sri Lanka or to academia, or to both – as did his predecessor as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Professor Peiris, before ambition turned him sour. Salman Khurshid meanwhile is the Minister of External Affairs in India, and still extraordinarily mentally agile, as befits a lawyer turned novelist turned politician.
Our meeting was to present him with my latest publication, ‘Mirrored Images’ a collection of English and Sinhala and Tamil poetry from Sri Lanka. Published by the National Book Trust of India, as a companion to ‘Bridging Connections’, a collection of short stories, it shows the common themes explored by writers in different languages in Sri Lanka. It would be an ideal showpiece around which our ambassadors abroad could show the reality about this country, and combat the divisive propaganda of those trying to destroy Sri Lanka. Needless to say, our Foreign Ministry will do nothing about this, as they did nothing about the wonderful film, ‘Common Differences’, made by a Croatian who showed the essential unifying features of this country. It was only after I had screened the film myself that, under prodding from the Ministry of Defence, the Lakshman Kadirgamar Centre finally had a screening on April 3rd. Thankfully, they took a leaf out of my book, and instead of engaging in the othering that so many of those who think themselves patriotic engage in, they asked Jehan Perera, along with other participants in the film, to contribute as discussants.
This concept of othering, which we seem to have adopted from the West instead of sticking to our cultural traditions of inclusivity, recurred in my mind as fundamentally destructive, when I heard Mr Khurshid talking about the close links India had with Sri Lanka. His view was that, whatever other links India would build up, with the region, with Asia, with the world, there was something special about the relationship with Sri Lanka.
When I say I believe this is absolutely accurate, I will doubtless be accused of naïvete by those wishing to drive Sri Lanka foreign policy in a different direction. Yet the historical evidence shows that my optimistic view, which seems shared by the Indian Foreign Minister, a Muslim yet one whose commitment to his country is beyond doubt, is correct. In the decades since we both got our independence, that special relationship has only been under threat twice.
The first time was after J R Jayewardene took power, and decided Sri Lanka would become an outpost of the West in the Cold War rivalry that reached its peak at that period. India reacted, and though I regret that this reaction included the training of terrorist forces, I do not think we can blame them for acting in self defence when the Sri Lankan government was trying to flog Trincomalee and its oil tanks to the Americans, and had indeed flogged Iranawila to them for a Voice of America station – in the days before satellites, when such constructions were the very stuff of international espionage and counter espionage.
When Jayewardene realized he could not fight both the Sinhala and Tamil opposition in Sri Lanka, and India, he signed the Indo-Lankan Accord which took India off our backs. In fact it led to solid support from India since then, notwithstanding the lack of progress towards political resolution of our problems during President Kumaratunga’s time. Though they were exasperated with her – and who would not have been, when such wonderful ideals were betrayed by a fundamental lethargy that allowed us to decline so swiftly during her tenure? – they supported her solidly. The Indian Ambassador here during the period in which Ranil Wickremesinghe headed the government was one of her most trusted confidantes.
That understanding, of the need for Sri Lanka to overcome terrorism even while ensuring full participation of Tamils in the political process, led to the solid support President Rajapaksa received from India during his first term in office. It is therefore deeply regrettable that we should have thrown away that advantage, so that in the last two years we found India voting against Sri Lanka in the resolutions brought by the United States of America at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
There were many reasons for this, some to do with pressures brought by the various political parties in Tamilnadu, others springing from our own inadequacies. Unfortunately we have not set in place mechanisms to make up for those inadequacies. Instead we allow free rein to vicious attacks on India by those who believe our foreign policy should forget India and concentrate on building relations with other countries.
I have pointed out before the absurdity of those who think that we can become a fervent ally of the West, as Jayawardene set himself up as in the eighties, and treat India with contumely. Given the desperate efforts of all Western countries to woo India, which was not the case in the eighties, there is no way in which we can forget about the special relationship with India and turn to the West.
But it is equally preposterous to think that we can cling to China and ignore India. China has made it clear this is not on, and it does not work through othering as the West does. If commentators do not realize that, they should not be taken seriously.