‘Alles in Wonderland’ and Indo-Lanka relations

Image courtesy First Lanka

The Parody

The hilarious political satire titled ‘Alles in Wonderland’ was presented by the Ananda College Drama Circle at a public performance recently. It won first place at the 2013 – Inter school Royal Drama Competition held in Colombo. Based on a unique adaption of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the play on Indo Lanka relations was cleverly dramatised through a parody. The production was not only entertaining but also thought provoking.

The opening scene of three gangsters could very well have represented two competing superpowers and Sri Lanka as a pawn, caught in between, playing the game of Mutually Assured Destruction. To everyone’s relief, no one was shot but it clearly portrayed the stupidity, intimidation and brinkmanship involved in war games which could easily end up in tragedy for all players.

The Reality

However, the content of the play is no farce. Undoubtedly, the play conveyed a deeper message than what superficially seemed to be sheer entertainment. It showed the deeply suspicious and hostile relations between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu which is tragic.

The play prompts an analysis of the causes behind the deterioration of Indo Lanka relations. It is truly unfortunate that it has now reached the tipping point where Sri Lankan visitors to Tamil Nadu are blatantly unwelcome, threatened and even attacked culminating in the most recent series of bomb attacks on the most venerated of Buddhist sites at Bodhgaya in the state of Bihar. Both governments need to urgently address the problem in a diplomatic manner despite provocative reactions by extremist elements. Reprisal and further hostility must be avoided at all costs at it will be to Sri Lanka’s disadvantage.

Although Tamils and Sinhalese have lived in relative peace and harmony over several generations in Sri Lanka, ethnicity was politicized, post independence, in order to stir Sinhalese nationalist fervour for political gain. It also served as an effective tactic to divert public attention from the adverse economic impact of of bad governance. India took advantage of this deadly weapon to foment socio-political instability when it felt that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy was threatening its regional supremacy and security interests.

Understandably, India’s geopolitics is primarily governed by its security and economic interests as the regional superpower. Sri Lanka needs to accept this geopolitical reality and act in a manner that would engender trust and cooperation between both nations’ without compromising its national interest.

It would make sense for Sri Lanka to accept India as the regional super power and act in tandem with them purely in Sri Lanka’s self interest. India has nothing to gain by dividing Sri Lanka other than using the ethnic conflict to destabilise the country if it sees Sri Lanka’s relations with competing super powers as a danger to their regional supremacy. It is unfortunate that successive governments have allowed Sri Lanka to be used as a mere pawn in the geopolitical games of competing superpowers thereby putting the nation at risk. 

Minority Rights

The political, social and economic marginalisation of Sri Lankan Tamils since gaining independence can be attributed to a majority fear psychosis of a threat in the form of a Sri Lankan Tamil power nexus developing with the 65 million strong population of Tamil Nadu. The situation is aptly described as ‘a majority with a minority complex’. Sinhala extremists thoughtlessly fanned this fear to gain political advantage without giving heed to its dangerous consequences. Regrettably, it led to a catastrophic ethnic conflict which has not only retarded economic development but also created a deep rift between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka contributing to worsening Indo- Lanka relations.

With the government’s victory following a brutal thirty year long conflict with the LTTE, the regime successfully reaped the allegiance of the Sinhala majority. However, the war victory was marred by the unaccounted large scale loss of civilian lives prompting a UN request for government and LTTE accountability. The government has denied all allegations of atrocities and places the blame entirely on the LTTE. The government claims that the call for accountability is an international conspiracy instigated by the powerful Tamil Diaspora in order to bring disrepute to the government. Following the government’s defiance  in being compelled to conduct an investigation, the UN Secretary General appointed an advisory panel which reported credible evidence of alleged atrocities which needs investigation and accountability. The government rejected the report as “fundamentally flawed” and “patently biased”. Subsequently, due to mounting pressure, the government set up the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC)  which was mandated to investigate the facts and circumstances which led to the failure of the ceasefire agreement made in 2002, the lessons that should be learnt from those events and the measures which need to be taken in order to prevent any recurrence with the intent of promoting national unity and reconciliation.

During the UNHRC Universal Periodic Review process in 2012, Sri Lanka rejected 100 recommendations – nearly half of those proposed by United Nations member states, including many related to accountability and justice issues.  Among the rejected recommendations was one to implement the government’s own LLRC recommendations. Instead, the government committed only to implement its National Action Plan on the LLRC which ignores nearly 50 percent of the recommendations made by the LLRC. By delaying to investigate allegations of human rights abuses and war crimes, the government has displayed  indifference in addressing the issue and thereby adversely affected its credibility.

The US resolution on accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka was backed by the  EU and adopted by the UNHRC. It has had adverse repercussions due to the government’s rebuttal in fulfilling its obligations.

The consequent threat of an UN sponsored war crimes investigation has resulted in the government’s prioritization of international damage control by seeking the support of Russia, China and their allies in the developing world such as Malaawi, Tanzania and Seychelles. Most of the African countries were among those which opposed and abstained from the US resolution. In order to garner their support for the next UNHRC review, Sri Lanka has been rapidly establishing diplomatic missions in such relatively poor countries which offer no value addition to our country. Other than being a drain on our scarce resources, they offer very little benefits in terms of trade, finance or technology as they are in a similar or worse off economic position compared to Sri Lanka. The threat of a war crimes inquiry appears to have distracted the government from more pressing economic issues in the country.

The government is also attempting to dilute India’s regional power over Sri Lanka’s internal affairs by countering it with increasing commercial and economic ties with both China and Russia. This course of action is further aggravating Indo- Lanka relations as it can destabilize the entire region.

Due to the close cultural and religious affinity, the people of Tamil Nadu have long sympathized with Sri Lankan Tamils concerning their marginalization since independence. Unfortunately, the issue has been shrewdly taken political advantage of by the competing parties of Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi as an effective bargaining tool with the central government of India. This has further compounded the complexity of negotiations between the central government and Sri Lanka in resolving the problem.

The Indo Lanka Peace Accord

The 1987 Indian air drop of rations claimed as an act of humanitarian assistance to Tamil civilians trapped by the war was seen by Sri Lanka as a violation of its territorial integrity. This was closely followed by the signing of the Indo Lanka Peace Accord proposed by late Rajiv Ghandi in order to devolve power to the north as a means of countering the LTTE call for a separate state. Although, it was seen as an infringement on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, the Jayewardene government agreed to enter into the agreement as it was considered the best option at that time. These events display the undeniable reality of India’s power and control over Sri Lanka’s domestic affairs which cannot be ignored or wished away but used strategically for our advantage.

Indo-Lanka Historic Links

The arrival of Arahat Mahinda from India to Sri Lanka, scion and Buddhist emissary of emperor Asoka, marked the commencement of Sinhala Buddhist culture and civilization. Sri Lanka’s religious link with India continues to date as evidenced by the regular and substantial Sri Lankan pilgrim traffic to sacred Indian sites. In fact, the budget air line Mihin Air was purportedly established to meet the growing demand of pilgrim traffic to India. However, the airline’s deepening debt and continuing losses gives rise to controversy that the project was conceived mainly as a prestige project promising lucrative commissions.

Very few Sri Lankans recognize the centuries of priceless religious, cultural, economic and technological ties that Sri Lanka has enjoyed with the entire Indian subcontinent which has contributed immensely to the advancement of the Sri Lankan nation. Irrespective of ethnicity, All Sri Lankans can even trace their genetic origins to the Indian subcontinent.

The 13th Amendment

The Sri Lankan government’s recent attempt to hastily revise the 13th amendment by removing police and land powers granted to Provincial Councils in anticipation of the upcoming Northern Provincial Council elections has soured Indo Lanka relations as it contravenes the spirit of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord of 1987 by which it was agreed to devolve power to all the provinces, particularly, to the Northern and Eastern provinces as a means of addressing Tamil minority rights. However, the devolution plan never materialized in the North as elections could not be held due to the ongoing conflict and due to LTTE resistance to India’s proposal which watered down their call for a separate state.

Although conditions are now right for the setting up a Northern Provincial Council, the government’s reluctance to do so due to the fear of losing control over the North as a consequence of power devolution has seriously undermined their sincerity in claiming to address issues on minority rights. This has been aggravated by the extremist faction of the government calling for the repeal of the 13th amendment on grounds that it was forced upon Sri Lanka and will endanger the unitary status of the country. The silence of the government indicates that they are not averse to this view. However, recent discussions with New Delhi indicate that they will not agree to the dilution of 13th amendment and have, in fact, requested for the implementation of the 13 plus proposal as promised by the President.

National Interest

Most Sri Lankans are in denial that Tamil Nadu is an economic power house, right at our doorstep, on which we can hitch a quick ride to economic prosperity. Tamil Nadu is the second largest contributor to India’s GDP. The state has shown a steady growth of over 9 per cent over the past three years. Tamil Nadu is the second most industrialised state in India. It ranks third in foreign direct investment (FDI) approvals next only to Maharashtra and Delhi. The per capita income of Tamil Nadu has steadily been above the national average.

South India, comprising four states including Tamil Nadu, has also registered higher than national average growth over the past three decades. The south Indian cities of Bangalore and Hyderabad, the IT hubs of India are home to software giants. Bangalore, also known as the Silicon Valley of India, hosts a majority of the IT companies of the world. Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu is considered  the Detroit of South Asia, accounting for about 35% of India’s overall automotive components.

Consequently, we need to make use of our strategic advantage of being in proximity to a power house consisting of not only Tamil Nadu but the entirety of South India which comprises of a population of over 250 Million. Unfortunately, we have been frittering away the opportunity due to fear and aversion in cooperating with our neighbour with whom we share a common heritage of over 2500 years.

Moreover, we cannot afford to encourage enmity at our doorstep as we are still a economically weak and vulnerable nation in the world stage. Demonizing India and the democratic west as conspirators seeking our downfall, as a nation, is irrational and self destructive. We need their good will not only to access their markets for our products but also for vital technology and foreign investment.

We fail to realise that our geographically distanced allies both China and Russia are actually in economic competition with us. We only serve as a pawn in their geopolitics by providing not only markets for their products but also for their funds on the basis of commercial lending. It is common knowledge that loans received from authoritarian regimes for funding costly prestige projects encourage corruption on a grand scale in both countries due to lack of transparency and accountability.

Maritime Cooperation

Sri Lanka happens to share with India the advantage of being strategically located along international maritime routes.  Mutual cooperation is necessary to optimize gains from our common maritime advantage but also to serve our common security interests. Originally, the maritime route straddling both nations was referred to as the ‘pearl necklace’ with the pearl envisaged as a state of the art sea port located in the south constructed with Indian cooperation. Instead, Sri Lanka decided to broker a deal with China to develop the Hambantota port which has threatened India’s security interests. India has responded to this security threat by unilaterally proposing the controversial ‘Seth Samudram’ shipping route project via the Palk Straits. Even at this late stage, it will be to Sri Lanka’s interest to proactively discuss and negotiate its concerns and rights over the proposed route which in addition to bypassing Hambantota port will have adverse ecological consequences in the Palk Straits.

Another serious irritant in Sri Lanka’s relations with Tamil Nadu is the inability to negotiate for mutually advantageous fishing rights in common waters due to the current impasse in implementing maritime boundaries for fishing. Indian and Sri Lankan small scale fishermen are the innocent victims of a scheme that appears impractical to enforce. In this regard, the Indian Supreme Court has issued notice to the central government on a petition by DMK chief  Karunanidhi seeking the reclaiming of the Katchatheevu Island whose control India conceded to Sri Lanka in the 1970s.The petition also sought the restoration of fishing rights of Tamil fishermen hailing from districts near Katchatheevu Island.

Our asymmetric relationship with India places us at a disadvantage in indulging in confrontational politics which breeds mistrust. It is in our national interest to strengthen relations with India, in general, and Tamil Nadu, in particular, through diplomacy and cooperation on all fronts in order to avoid a tipping point which will be detrimental to Sri Lanka as the weak partner in the relationship. Through strategic cooperation with India, we can ensure our economic advancement more rapidly.

Sovereignty and Territorial Integrity

The notion of sovereignty based on territorial integrity has become out-dated in a globalized world where transnational corporations rule international trade and commerce making national borders porous and vulnerable to external influences and control. In addition to the power of developed nations, the power of multi-national organizations can also supersede that of economically weak nations such as ours which makes us more vulnerable.

Consequently, Sri Lanka needs to re-define its concept of sovereignty in terms of political and economic power derived from good governance and sound economic management based on democratic principles in order to earn its rightful position and respect among the community of nations. This would be the most rational way to safeguard Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.