South Asia

India’s Dilemma on Sri Lanka Is Playing Out Again

To battle Chinese hegemony, New Delhi must cement existing friendships in Sri Lanka and embrace new friends.

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Much of the hair-splitting seen in India over a Chinese naval vessel’s arrival to Hambantota port in Sri Lanka betrays New Delhi’s unending dilemma with the island nation. It also indicates that India does not seem to have learnt much from the pitfalls of megaphone diplomacy it practised in the past.

The so-called “scientific research vessel” may indeed be a spy ship as alleged by India. Military experts are certain it is. Even so, New Delhi failed in not ensuring that its request to Sri Lanka vis-à-vis the Chinese ship would not become public knowledge.

Once that happened, it led to a political tumult in Sri Lanka, forcing the government to first tell China to keep away its ship and then do a dramatic U-turn. Sri Lanka was embarrassed, India was disappointed and China had the last laugh when the vessel sailed into Hambantota on August 16.

Indian policymakers and strategic advisors who feel that Colombo let down New Delhi despite the enormous help rendered to Sri Lanka amid its agonising economic woes must remember that smaller countries in South Asia are not ready to be a part of India’s unending battles with Islamabad and Beijing.

Sri Lanka is no exception. In any case, Sri Lanka has leased the Hambantota port to China for 99 years since 2017; it is also saddled with huge Chinese debts it cannot repay. To expect Colombo to stand up to China on India’s behalf defies logic.

A group of Sri Lankan visitors at the new deep water shipping port watch Chinese dredging ships work in Hambantota, 240km (149 miles) southeast of Colombo, March 24, 2010. Credit: Reuters/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/File Photo

A group of Sri Lankan visitors at the new deep water shipping port watch Chinese dredging ships work in Hambantota, 240km (149 miles) southeast of Colombo, March 24, 2010. Credit: Reuters/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/File Photo

Does this mean that India should keep quiet if and when China – or any other country – makes moves which could be defined as crossing New Delhi’s red lines? Certainly not. But one must know that no country wants to be seen as bowing to Indian diktat. Any request that is likely to offend a third country has to be made in a manner that Sri Lankans do not feel insulted or humiliated.

Also read: Review: A Comprehensive Background to Understand Sri Lanka’s Present Political Crisis

India-Sri Lanka relations

During the 1980s when the Tamil separatist campaign raged in Sri Lanka, the Indian government would often go public with what it wanted Colombo to do or not to do with regard to the conflict. This created tremendous ill will for India in Sri Lanka, with most people viewing it as high-handed tactics. By the next decade, the lesson was learnt and India began to convey its concerns to Sri Lanka privately – with far better results.

Sri Lankans are not anti-India per se but there are historical reasons why an anti-India strand prevails in the country or why China is at times viewed as a friend. The dominant Sinhalese community remains deeply upset with India for training, arming and harbouring Tamil militants in the 1980s. This is why neither the death of nearly 1,200 Indian soldiers in the war against the LTTE nor the $4 billion worth of help India gave this year (which otherwise was hugely praised) is remembered when Sri Lankans feel their right to act as a sovereign nation has been seemingly violated.

It is not that Sri Lankans are enamoured of China. Sinhalese nationalist groups, including Buddhist monks, have not shied away from publicly attacking Beijing if they felt the Chinese are viewing the Colombo port that they are building as a de facto colony. Indians also need to remember that Sri Lanka has enjoyed long periods of friendly relations with the Chinese dating to the ancient past. In any case, many Sri Lankans, including in the military, remember Chinese help given during the war against the LTTE when India was unwilling to provide heavy weapons.

The Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP), undoubtedly the strongest leftist group in Sri Lanka, has for decades riled against “Indian expansionism” in its ideological lessons given to its cadres. It is only this year that the JVP leadership, perhaps for the first time, made India-friendly statements publicly and pledged not to overlook Indian interests.

Amid all this, the Tamil community, barring the hardcore pro-LTTE section, remains vocally most loyal to India. This applies to both “Indian Tamils” in the central hills and those in the north and east. During the Chinese naval vessel’s visit to Hambantota, in contrast to a handful of Sinhalese who spoke for China, it was only Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) leader Senthil Thondaman who publicly voiced that Indian security interests needed to be respected.

Traditionally, many Tamil homes in Sri Lanka’s north and east used to display photographs of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Until the war with the LTTE started, India’s Independence Day on August 15 was celebrated by Sri Lankan Tamils. Last year, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) member S. Shrithan told Sri Lanka’s parliament, “Do not instigate India… No matter how many problems we face, Tamils will always stand with India, with whom we have an organic link.” He said this after Chinese companies were given contracts in key islands off Jaffna, not too far from India.

Is there any other community in any neighbouring country which speaks for India like this?

New Delhi needs to put aside the Chinese vessel episode and unleash pro-active steps to dramatically scale up people-to-people contacts with Sri Lankans. Besides the known political players with whom it remains in touch, India must reach out to even those who are known to harbour suspicions about New Delhi. At the same time, traditional friends should never be taken for granted.

While Sri Lanka promotes the “Ramayana tourism circuit”, New Delhi must woo Tamils in Sri Lanka’s north to undertake religious tourism in Tamil Nadu. For this, there must be more connectivity, and not just by air.

India needs to complete in time the projects it has undertaken in Sri Lanka and ensure that their strategic objectives are met. The Jaffna Cultural Centre, which has great potential, has been inaugurated but is still not functional. On the other hand, the iconic Jaffna Library, which has received Chinese aid to digitalise its sources, is up and running.

India must also offer help to rebuild at least the prominent among the hundreds of Hindu temples in the north and east destroyed during the years of war. In economically distressed times like now, financial help must also be given to Buddhist Viharas elsewhere in the country but not the controversial Buddhist temples in the Tamil territory. More should be done to facilitate Buddhist tourism to places like Bodh Gaya and other Buddhist sites in India.

More importantly, there must be concerted efforts by the Indian government and private sector to offer tangible economic help to Sri Lanka. For one, India must help Sri Lanka achieve a “white revolution” so that its huge dependency on New Zealand and Australia for dairy products is sharply cut. Similarly, India must generously share its experiences in the agriculture sector with Sri Lanka.

All the way from Chillaw on the west coast to Arugam Bay in the east coast, more than two thirds of the entire Sri Lankan coastline is largely populated by Tamil villagers. Most are fishermen. India must rationally structure and implement programmes to help this community, which already battles predatory tactics by their counterparts in India.

To battle Chinese hegemony, one must cement existing friendships in Sri Lanka and embrace new friends.

M.R. Narayan Swamy is a veteran journalist.