India eyes empty island but is that all it wants

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India’s new high commissioner to Colombo Santosh Jha is no stranger to Sri Lanka. He served here during the last years of the anti-LTTE war and a while after it ended.

So High Commissioner Jha knows this country well enough, though he might need to catch up on the rather confusing state of Sri Lankan politics after then-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s rather hurried exit and the rather strange power structure and governance -style that followed.

Though 15 years have passed since his avatar here as a diplomat handling economic and commercial affairs, he seems not to have forgotten his business-like approach.

Ten days or so ago he addressed the India-Sri Lanka Defence Seminar. Those who studied his speech would have no doubt that unlike in old times when he was pressing for closer economic and commercial bilateral ties, this time he was pitching to sell more than eggs and onions.

“Like in other areas we are cooperating closely on security and defence matters,” Jha said. Those who were present to hear him would have little doubt what he was trying to sell this time round.

Even if alarums did not sound immediately, history should have reminded the more alert to keep their fingers on the push buttons.

Ernest Hemingway titled his novel “A Farewell to Arms”, but diplomat Jha was not bidding farewell to love and war as Hemingway does.

Rather High Commissioner Jha is saying welcome to arms—and in this case, nothing but Indian arms for our armed services as though we are being readied for another war.

But to sell, as Mr Jha tries strenuously to do, he must woo and cajole as he well knows. So, he says:

“We stood shoulder to shoulder with our civilisational twin when it was most needed and without any hesitation… Many of you will agree that India is and will remain Sri Lanka’s reliable friend and a trusted and dependable partner.”

The first part of that statement is not disputed as President Wickremesinghe, the immediate beneficiary of Indian largesse whatever the deeper motive behind Indian philanthropy might be, knows only too well that it saved his political bacon.

But it is the latter part of that commitment that is rather worrying, especially to those who continue to entertain caution or even suspicion of Indian long-term intentions in an era of neo-colonialism.

Those persons—more so Sri Lankans who dig much deeper into history and unearth that Indo-Lanka relations have not been as comfortable and cosy even in ancient times—might find it interesting that High Commissioner Jha is employing his diplomatic skills when he says “is and will” but fails to mention “was” a “reliable friend and a trusted and dependable partner.”

The immediate problem was that envoy Jha’s soothing rhetoric intended no doubt to comfort those who have been critical of the Ranil Wickremesinghe government’s own largesse in dealing with Indian investors like Gautam Adani and handing over to him projects hither and thither in Sri Lanka without the usual tender procedures some claim, raising more than public suspicions, was punctured even before Mr Jha could settle down to his new assignment.

Curiously enough, the damage to the diplomatic efforts of Jha was jarring remarks on Twitter by Prime Minister Narendra Modi followed almost immediately by Jha’s boss External Affairs Minister Subramanyam Jaishankar at two press conferences, that berated the then Indian government headed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for “callously” handing over Indian territory (with DMK support) to neighbouring Sri Lanka.

One could understand Modi’s ire if Prime Minister Gandhi had ceded Arunachal Pradesh to China or Kashmir to Pakistan. But this was a half-a-square-mile desolate island called Kachchativu—whatever the spelling—which came alive only once a year when pilgrims from Sri Lanka and India visited the solitary church dedicated to St Anthony of Padua.

Agreed that this was once disputed territory particularly with Tamil Nadu claiming rights over it and pressuring India’s central government not to concede ownership.

Ahead of an official visit to Sri Lanka by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in late April 1973, I wrote to The Guardian (UK) as its Colombo correspondent then, which the newspaper published on April 27 as its lead story on Page 3 headlined “ Mrs Gandhi to allay Sri Lanka fears of Indian expansionism.”

“India’s recently revived claim to a half-mile-long barren and uninhabited island in Sri Lanka’s northern territorial waters has further bedevilled the chequered story of the two countries’ relations. It has aroused concern about the security of this country lying in the shadow of a powerful neighbour euphoric after its military victory over Pakistan,” it said.

“Although Mrs Gandhi denied last year any territorial designs on Sri Lanka, the recent statement in the Lok Sabha by her Deputy Foreign Minister Surendar Pal Singh that the desolate Kachchativu belonged to India seemed more than a concession to turbulent Tamil Nadu politics,” it went on to say.

Though one year later Mrs Gandhi and Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike signed an agreement whereby Kachchativu was recognised as Sri Lanka territory and lay on this country’s side of the maritime boundary line that divided the two countries, and an agreement two years later spelt out the fishing rights of the people on either side, bilateral relations again broke down shortly after when JR Jayewardene’s UNP government came to power.

That is why the word “was” omitted, conveniently or otherwise, by High Commissioner Jha is so very significant. It was the Indira Gandhi government that allowed Tamil militant organisations that later waged war against Sri Lanka, to be trained, armed and financed by India.

While journalists in Sri Lanka were reporting on the training and assistance given to Tamil militants, India denied it until the Indian news magazine “India Today” (if I remember correctly) exposed the goings on with the knowledge and support of India’s intelligence agency RAW and Tamil Nadu state politicians.

This was followed by Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv and his infamous and threatening “Parippu” drop when Sri Lankan forces led by Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Wijeya Wimalaratne had cornered Prabhakaran’s LTTE in Vadamaarachchi in northern Sri Lanka and inflicted heavy losses when India intervened.

I was in Vadamaarachchi at the time to be told that the LTTE had taken to the jungles. That war might have ended sooner if not for Indian intervention which India called “humanitarian assistance” and many countries remained silent, succumbing once more to big power politics.

It is not surprising then that Santosh Jha forgot or failed to recall the past when India was not Sri Lanka’s “most reliable friend”.

But now Indian Ocean geopolitics and China’s growing presence in the ocean and strengthening relations with littoral and other ocean nations is driving New Delhi to seek and strengthen its own bilateral and regional relations.

Yet it is facing opposition even from such small nations as the Maldives which have evicted Indian troops from the island nation.

While the Modi-Jaishankar combination’s harsh remarks over Kachchativu might be construed as domestic politics during a time of national elections as is already happening in Sri Lanka, there are two developments that call for caution and vigilance.

One is envoy Jha’s reference to ever-widening areas of bilateral cooperation and his pinpointing “security and defence matters”. He would like to see Sri Lanka more dependent on India for its arms supplies, like India was in the early years dependent heavily on the Soviet Union.

This way Sri Lanka would be tied to India’s apron strings dependent on India in several areas of importance for the survival of the country including power and energy.

Though raising the Kachchativu issue might right now be domestic politics, External Affairs Minister Jaishankar’s intervention in this does warrant some attention, especially if bilateral agreements signed exactly 50 years ago by its own government is being questioned as to their validity.

What appears dangerously adventurous is what Jaishankar says in his book “Why Bharat Matters” which this newspaper pointed to editorially. “A national outlook will naturally produce a nationalist diplomacy, and it is something the world needs to get used to.”

Don’t you worry Jaishankar, we will and very soon too with Modi’s third coming.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran

Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later,
he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)


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