I have never been posted to Sri Lanka, though I had asked a couple of times whether I could serve there, initially to be nearer home and subsequently on account of some fascination for a challenging assignment. But the race relations there were such that I could not be posted there because of my Tamil sounding name. Malayalees like Ambassador Thomas Abraham, Ambassador Ranjan Mathai and Ambassador Nirupama Rao were welcome there, but not a Malayalee with a Tamil name, or so thought the Ministry of External Affairs. (MEA) “How can we inform all the Tamil Tigers that you are not a Tamil?” I was asked. I worked as the Special Assistant to a Foreign Secretary who believed that no South Indian should deal with Sri Lanka and no North Indian should deal with Pakistan!
Now I live at swimming distance from the island. The scenery and the hot food attracted me to go there occasionally, but the proximity has not given me any insights into the issues there. I was particularly fascinated by Sri Lanka as my father, when his all-powerful maternal uncle refused to send him to college, had run away to Sri Lanka at the age of 15. He was found and sent back home soon enough, but I often wondered what could have happened if he had not come back. His children could well be tigers. If MEA policy was different, I could have vicariously tasted a life, which could have been mine.
In the context of foreign policy, India has been a unitary state, but of late, the policy is to involve our states in proximity with foreign countries to play a role in promoting our interests in those countries. In the case of Kerala, though Sri Lanka is next door, it has more interests in the Gulf region. The state, which has played a role in Sri Lanka is Tamil Nadu. This involvement made it difficult for the Central Government to formulate sound policies towards Sri Lanka. The possibility of a Greater Tamil Eelam was a nightmare for New Delhi and this contributed to our Sri Lanka policy. Kerala, on the other hand, took no interest in Sri Lanka and its links with the Gulf have benefitted India in many ways, particularly employment and trade. In a recent case, the ruler of Sharjah, on a visit to Kerala, readily released a large number of Indians in Sharjah jails, as requested by the Kerala Chief Minister. In the case of Sri Lanka, Kerala rarely came into the picture even though the recent Easter bombings in Colombo are suspected to have been planned in Kerala. Though the states are being encouraged to help in formulating policy and in implementing it, their interventions have not been very helpful like in the cases of the Italian marines and the Teesta waters.
I have only some vague recollections of the events in the 80s, whose shadow is still haunting our policy towards Sri Lanka. I was far away from the scene and communications were not so swift at that time. My overall impression is that there is no other issue in the world in which India got so involved for such a long period. From peaceful negotiations to virtual war, we tried everything to end the ethnic conflict, primarily because Tamil Nadu politics. Chief Ministers MGR, Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi drove our Sri Lankan policy to a great extent. From arming and training the Tamil Tigers to acquiescing in its elimination, India was deeply involved. It remains a mystery to me as to why Rajiv Gandhi, rather than Prabhakaran, signed the peace agreement with Jayawardane. Of course, we came to know later that Prabhakaran was not willing to sign the agreement. Rajiv Gandhi felt that the agreement was the best deal the Tamils could get under the circumstances and Prabhakaran thought that he would get Tamil Eelam if India kept away. Jayawardane had the last laugh and Rajiv Gandhi paid for the misjudgment with his own life. This was the only case of a former Indian Prime Minister being assassinated for a foreign policy decision he took as Prime Minister.
The IPKF went into the battlefield with empty hands and got themselves butchered and in accordance with the Gujral Doctrine, withdrew from the island under threat from both the Sri Lankan Government and the Tigers. And when the die was cast in favour of the Sri Lankan Government, both the winners and losers were not with us even though the decisive factor was our neutrality. The net result of all our exertions was that neither the Sri Lankan Government nor the Tamils gave any credit to India for what Sri Lanka is today. In the midst of all this, China had gradually begun to exert great influence in Sri Lanka, making successive Sri Lankan leaders dependent on China for financial and political support.
If we analyze India’s policies and actions in Sri Lanka objectively, it will be seen that India has been consistently fair, sympathetic and supportive of Sri Lanka throughout. We sought for the Tamils a fair deal without detracting from the sovereignty and integrity of Sri Lanka. Internationally, India supported the cause of Sri Lanka, except when, on occasions, India voted against Sri Lanka to pressurize the Sri Lankan Government to be more reasonable to its Tamil minority. A fair judgement is that India has been more sinned against than sinning. One lesson we should have learnt from our Sri Lanka experience is that we cannot solve the internal problems of our neighbours, particularly when those problems are entangled with the interests of the people of Indian origin there.
My engagement with Sri Lanka was in multilateral fora like the United Nations and the Nonaligned Movement. In the early eighties, the Ad hoc Committee on the Indian Ocean was a highly politicized disarmament body of the General Assembly. The Committee was constituted to prepare for an international conference on the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace, an initiative of the Nonaligned Movement. Over the years, it had become a Cold War exercise because the western countries wanted to block the conference while the NAM wanted to promote it. As far as India was concerned, the conference was meant to keep the Indian Ocean free of external forces. Soviet Union paid lip service to the conference on the understanding that the NAM was objecting only to bases and not to passage of foreign warships. India Pakistan differences emerged in the Committee when Pakistan began to speak of controlling regional powers also and introduced the concept of South Asia as a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. What surprised me was that the Sri Lankan Chairman openly sided with Pakistan on restraining regional powers and establishing a NWFZ in South Asia. That was the time when Sri Lanka and India were working together on several issues, including the Tamil problem. India had to fight a three-way battle in the Committee without any support from Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan position was hard to justify in the context of our good relations with Sri Lanka at that time. The situation continued at least till I left New York in 1983. The ominous Sri Lankan position in the Ad hoc Committee on the Indian Ocean cast a shadow on bilateral relations.
A bigger surprise came during my second term in New York. When the non-permanent seat for 95-96 came up in 1994, India decided to put up our candidature in the Asian Group for endorsement. But Sri Lanka expressed interest in that seat and India decided to concede the turn to Sri Lanka as a gesture of goodwill in the light of the spring in bilateral relations at the time. Under instructions from the MEA, we announced in the Asian Group that India was withdrawing in favour of Sri Lanka. Nothing was heard of it till two months before the election when the Sri Lankan DPR contacted me to say that Sri Lanka had withdrawn its candidature in favour of South Korea, but India was free to contest, if we so wished. against South Korea. This was shocking news as the seat was earmarked for South Asia and bringing in South Korea was most inappropriate. We also discovered that South Korea had already campaigned very effectively and secured the support of a majority of nations. We had only two stark choices, as I informed the MEA; “Lose to South Korea that year or contest the East Asian seat two years later and lose against Japan!” India tried to reason with South Korea and suggested that it should contest against Japan for the East Asian seat, but it did not relent. India then decided to contest against Japan and lost with 40 votes. I had moved to Nairobi by the time the election was held and my repeated pleas to withdraw from the race fell on deaf ears.
The responsibility for our disgraceful defeat was at the Sri Lankan door as it conspired to get South Korea elected, perhaps on a consideration, which far outweighed the value of Indian friendship. But the lesson we should have learnt was that Sri Lanka is unreliable in the best of times. With the advent of massive Chinese assistance, Sri Lanka has turned away from India, while maintaining cultural links. Most recently, we see some disillusionment about China in Sri Lanka, which was reflected in President Sirisena’s welcome to our Prime Minister during his visit after the Easter bombings.
On the economic and commercial front, things have been moving well because of economic complementarities and our development assistance, even during the political turmoil. But till the Chinese penetrated the market, we had left it to the market forces to take care of the fluctuations. With the current paralysis of SAARC, there have been some erosion of the economic links. On the other hand, we now have a robust programme for assistance to displaced persons in Sri Lanka. The Buddhist links are celebrated, but when it came to naming a satellite for surveillance over India, they called it ‘Ravana’, rather than ‘Gautama’.
Sri Lanka is poised for a heavily contested Presidential election and whoever wins, it is time to end the shadows of the 80s and reorient our policy. We should not get entangled in the Tamil issue anymore. Nor should we try to compete with China to shower assistance on Sri Lanka. After the next Presidential elections, we should shape a mutually beneficial strategic relationship with Sri Lanka, by abandoning the baggage of the past.