India loses the plot

Colombo continues to drift away from New Delhi and towards Beijing as the UPA Government flounders on foreign policy. That's bad news for us

by Ashok K Mehta

(September 29, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) The construction of the memorial for the Indian Peace Keeping Forces in Colombo has been mired in politics. First, it was an internal land row. Then, a minor debate on a mutually acceptable design for the memorial. And finally a political argument on when and who should inaugurate the memorial. Owing to a land dispute involving the Mayor of Colombo, it was decided to construct it alongside the World War II Memorial in the heart of town but even this was not acceptable. It came up eventually outside Colombo at Kotte near the new Parliament building. It must be acknowledged that the Sri Lankan military played a constructive role, the Navy particularly being responsible for it.

In 2008, Lt Gen AS Kalkat, who was the overall Commander of IPKF, was asked by India’s Ministry of Defence to assemble a team of Sri Lanka veterans to be present at the formal inauguration, at one time, planned during the SAARC summit in 2008 with both President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh present. That would have been a fitting tribute for the 1,200 brave men who sacrificed their lives for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. Politics got in the way because by then Mr Rajapaksa, having liberated the East, was closing in on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to deliver the mortal blow in the North.

Twenty years after the withdrawal of the IPKF, India’s High Commissioner Ashok Kanth laid a wreath on August 15 this year at the black marble memorial marking its formal inauguration without any political or diplomatic representation from Sri Lanka. Since then, the Indian Naval and Army Chiefs have visited the memorial in quick succession. Interestingly, no Indian Prime Minister has visited Colombo on a bilateral visit since Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assaulted by a Naval sailor in the honour guard in 1987.

As the India-Sri Lanka Accord-enabled IPKF became a key political irritant in India-Sri Lanka relations, it was hounded out by then President Ranasinghe Premadasa and what is worse, the Indian political and diplomatic establishment blamed it for the failure of its coercive diplomacy.

Sri Lankans were extremely emotional, even irrational, about the IPKF. After the Sri Lankan Government had manipulated a duplicitous deal with the LTTE, Colombo wanted the IPKF to “go back”. When Sri Lanka was in deep trouble after the LTTE overran Elephant Pass and threatened the Jaffna garrison in 2000, Buddhist monks pleaded for IPKF to “come back”. During the most recent offensive, when the Army was on the threshold of victory, Sri Lankans asked for the IPKF to “keep out”. The IPKF kept out though New Delhi helped Colombo to win a comprehensive military victory over the LTTE.

Nearly 30 years after New Delhi set out under its ‘Indira Gandhi Monroe Doctrine’ to help Sri Lankan Tamils secure their legitimate political right in a merged North-East, there is little India can cheer about. Rather it has been left carrying the can: The merged North-East Province has been demerged and the frequently promised 13th Amendment on devolution has turned into a mirage. From all accounts, the proposed 19th Amendment is to replace the 13th Amendment ostensibly to make the Provincial Council system more effective.

Mr Rajapaksa does not wish to have anything to do with the 13th Amendment. At the UN General Assembly speech on September 23 he said: “If history has taught us one thing it is that imposed external solutions breed resentment and ultimately fail.” That is why he has been talking about a home-grown solution though he has told everyone, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh downwards, that the 13th Amendment would be improved and implemented in full.

A high-ranking Sri Lankan security expert told me recently that if at all there is any political devolution in the North-East it will occur only after security stabilisation and that could take five to 10 years. After all, he said, the Chief Minister of the Eastern Province, Mr Pillaiyan, is a former terrorist. The ‘Eastern Awakening’, meant to be a rejuvenation of the war-wrecked Eastern Province, is confined to development. A full scale militarisation in the East and North is underway with cantonments coming up on scarce land. Locals have not been consulted on development projects which focus on tourism. Tamils are complaining that Sinhalese are being brought in under the garb of workers to further colonise the province.

India has not only been ignored over the power-sharing arrangement but also in the manner in which Chinese interests have got a boost across Sri Lanka, including in the North-East. Relations with China expanded after Mr Rajapaksa took office in 2005. From a bit player, China has become the largest donor ($ 3.06 billion) surpassing Japan. Sri Lankans value the robust political and military support provided by Beijing during the war and the developmental assistance after it. Colombo says “there are no strings attached”.

India should fear that the Hambantota port constructed by a Chinese consortium could become the southern anchor of its ‘String of Pearls’ around India. The refurbishment of Colombo harbour has also been bagged by China. Sri Lanka has drawn capital from India’s strategic silence over its pivotal military assistance in defeating the Tigers. This has helped Colombo to “look beyond Delhi” and openly acknowledge China’s key role in winning the war. Like Mr Pushpa Kamal Dahal in Nepal, Mr Rajapaksa has a grand vision of reducing dependence on India,courtesy China. Clearly New Delhi has lost the strategic plot in Sri Lanka. The outright defeat of the LTTE has diminished its influence in Colombo.

Former National Security Adviser MK Narayanan had warned Colombo in 2008 that it should not seek weapons from Pakistan and China when India was the pre-eminent power. It turns out that last week Sri Lanka’s most powerful Defence Secretary and brother of the President, Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was in China, underwriting the Defence Cooperation Agreement with PLA Chief of General Staff Chen Bingde.

It should have been payback time for Sri Lanka. Instead Colombo has subtly introduced the China card, complimenting the traditional Pakistan linkage to balance India. With China burrowing deep into Nepal in the north, it is repeating the exercise in the south. India’s optimistic claims of “decisive influence without direct involvement in Sri Lanka” are no longer valid. Mrs Indira Gandhi’s ‘Monroe Doctrine’ has been superceded by ‘Mahinda Chinthan’.
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