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India needs to re-tweak its Sri Lanka policy

By Nitin Gokhale
May 25, 2010 12:05 IST
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India must realise that despite China's rise, it remains firmly relevant in Sri Lanka. The age-old cultural and ethnic ties between the two countries are simply too strong to be affected by new friendships, says Nitin Gokhale

This week last year, Sri Lanka celebrated like never before.

On the streets of Colombo, citizens were jubilant.

Across the capital the burst of firecrackers reverberated as people poured out on the streets, waving Sri Lankan flags, singing patriotic songs, clearly happy that the single biggest fear factor  -- the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's ability to strike anywhere on the island -- was finally eliminated from their lives.

The Sinhalas were understandably aggressive but even Tamils in their strongholds like Wellawath were relieved that the LTTE was eliminated. As a young Tamil boy told me in a middle of a procession: "Now we Tamils will at least not be perpetual suspects in the eyes of the Army and the police."

But that was perhaps just for the record.  

Deep down, the Tamils had mixed feelings.

While most despised Prabhakaran for his despotic and totalitarian methods and for bringing only misery to them, many also believed that the LTTE's presence gave the Tamils a semblance of a chance to have a dignified existence in Sri Lanka.

With Prabhakaran gone, they felt, Tamils would remain permanent second class citizens.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa's biggest challenge then and now therefore is to win the peace by sparking reconciliation between its majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil ethnic populations, healing a rift that that looks unbridgeable even a year after that breakthrough event that ended 25 years of insurgency in Sri Lanka.

Physically, over 200,000 out of 250,000 internally displaced Tamils have been resettled in the northern areas over the past one year. But much work remains to be done in achieving the social and political integration of Tamils in the mainstream political process.

Reconstruction of the Tamil-majority northern areas is a mammoth task and it is unreasonable to expect full return of normalcy in a year's time. The Northern Province, it must be noted, was a scene of a devastating insurgency for over a quarter century. The brutalisation of the society, the destruction of the physical and social infrastructure in that devastating period is not easy to repair.

The wounds need time to heal and that time must be granted to the administration.

Having won an overwhelming mandate in both the presidential and parliamentary elections, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has a golden opportunity to correct the perceived as well as real injustice meted out to the Tamils in Sri Lanka's recent history.

Will he seize the opportunity? Does he have the qualities to transform himself from a 'warrior leader' to a sagacious statesman?

His record so far suggests that Rajapaksa might be tempted to perpetuate his larger-than-life image of a supreme leader who brooks no opposition.

His treatment of retired General Sarath Fonseka, the continuing curbs on the media and the concentration of powers in the hands of his brothers and his immediate family, are all signs of an insecure leader who was in control in a 'war-like 'situation but who may fall short of expectations in a peaceful environment.

There is another school of thought, though, that thinks that Mahinda Rajapaksa will now work resolutely towards cultivating a different, more benign image, rebuild the war-ravaged country's economy and re-stitch its torn social fabric.

The establishment in New Delhi would be at least relieved that it no longer has to do a tightrope act as it had to during Eelam War IV between 2006 and 2009, balancing the need to keep a toehold in Sri Lanka with domestic political compulsions.

Because of the peculiar political equation at the centre and the UPA's dependence on Tamil parties, India could never publicly go all-out to support Rajapaksa's full-scale war against the LTTE. The Sri Lankan president, however, was fully aware of India's dilemma and therefore had a back channel open to keep the Indian leadership in the loop.

With Prabhakaran and the LTTE now out of the equation, India no longer has to look over its shoulder to deal with Sri Lanka.

So how does New Delhi deal with a resurgent, confident Colombo?

The terms of the age-old equation have certainly changed.

Because India refused to help its military effort, Colombo turned to China and Pakistan, among others to source its military hardware.

Due to Mahinda Rajapaksa's clever strategy of playing China against India, Beijing now has major access to a vital outpost in the Indian Ocean.

India therefore has no option but to tweak its Sri Lanka policy keeping in mind the post-war situation and China's perceived increased footprints in the island nation. 

And yet, India has to be realistic in assessing the so-called 'Rising China Influence' in Sri Lanka.

India must realise that despite China's rise, it remains firmly relevant in Sri Lanka. The age-old cultural and ethnic ties between the two countries are simply too strong to be affected by new friendships.

Bilateral trade too is booming, over three billion dollars at last count and rising. India is assisting Sri Lanka in demining the ravaged North; it is building important roads in the erstwhile LTTE-dominated areas.

India was the first country to give a 100 million dollar grant for rehabilitation and reconstruction for the affected Tamil population last year. That help has been augmented by a 416-million-dollar credit line on soft terms with a promise of another 382 million dollars in the offing.

Indian tourists (1.28 lakh last year) already form the largest chunk of foreigners visiting Sri Lanka; In sum, the Indo-Sri Lanka relationship is as robust as before.

Besides, simple geography dictates that Sri Lanka cannot ignore its giant neighbour, however aggressive China's push may be.

What India needs to do, however, is to act decisively in taking up strategically important infrastructure projects that Sri Lanka has as it rebuilds its economy. Often in the past,indecisiveness has cost India dear.

A case in point is the oft-cited Hambantota deep sea port in southern Sri Lanka.

China walked into the project only after India vacillated.

India cannot stop China from trying to make deep inroads into Sri Lanka which has emerged as the pivot for the new "great game" that is unfolding in the Indian Ocean.

China's aggressive forays into the region stem from its belief that the Indian Ocean is not 'India's Ocean".

The bottom line is: China acts in its own national interest and so must India.

President Rajapaksa's upcoming State visit to New Delhi in early June will be a perfect opportunity for India to revisit its policy towards Sri Lanka, of course keeping the national interest of both the nations uppermost in mind.

Nitin Gokhale is the defence editor, NDTV

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