Colombo, Foreign Relations, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance


How do we describe our country, Sri Lanka, and how is our country described by others? As an island in the Indian Ocean, just south of or off the Southern shores of India. All descriptions of Sri Lanka are a variant of this because no other is possible. We are defined by our placing, and that placing is in relation to and proximate to India.

The unique importance of the Indian factor in Sri Lanka’s external relations is best evidenced in the fact that Sri Lanka is simply indescribable without reference to India.

The inevitable asymmetry inherent in the Indo-Lanka equation is similarly evidenced in the fact that India is easily describable without reference to Sri Lanka.

Our relation to India is almost unique. This is most easily understood with reference to another tropical island proximate to another big power: I refer to Cuba, ninety miles from the world’s greatest power, the superpower power or hyper-power as Fidel Castro puts it, the USA. Contrary to the romantic illusions of some on the Sri Lankan ultra-left, Sri Lanka is not to India what Cuba is to the United States.

Cuba is defined not only by her proximity to the USA. She is an island in the Caribbean, which consists of many others states and societies. Secondly she is a Latin American country, a country which is a member of the large family of Latin American nations. This is why Latin America was referred to by Jose Marti as “Our America”. Thirdly, Cuba is a member of the Hispanic community, the community of Spanish speaking nations.

The USA is not the only America. There are two Americas, North and South; Anglo and Latino. There is however, only one India. Cuba has neighbors other than the United States. Cuba has family. Sri Lanka has none. There are no neighbors to the south of Sri Lanka or around it except for the Maldives, and a federation even with the Maldives is a non option because of the religio-cultural differences. Only the Indian Ocean surrounds us right down to Antarctica.

Unlike the Spanish language and Christianity which unite Cuba with Latin America, there is no other landmass in which Sinhala is spoken by a community. Buddhism, especially Theravada Buddhism is not practiced in any adjacent land area, the closest being Myanmar, Thailand and Indo-China.

Thus, in geographic and cultural terms, Sri Lanka stands alone, next to the giant India.

India Inherent

We have been constituted by our relationship with India in terms of migration, religious diffusion/transmission, as well as military interference and power play, incursion and resistance. We are defined by the dialectics of our relationship with India.

India inheres in the very fabric of our country, or to change the metaphor, Sri Lanka is an inverted and miniaturized mirror of India: the belief system of the majority in the Southern two-thirds of the island derived from the teachings of and is identified with the greatest son and sage of India, Gautama the Buddha, while the minority in the Northern third of the island shares the same language and ethnicity as those in the South of the Indian subcontinent. 

Even if the Tamil factor did not exist, our relationship with India would be our most vital external relationship. However, inasmuch as the Northern part of Sri Lanka ethnically mirrors the Southern part of India and is separated only by a narrow strip of water; insofar as there exists a demonstrable and felt ethnic kinship between the Tamils of Northern Sri Lanka and those of the Tamil Nadu state of India, the relationship with India is a vital constituent of our management of our internal ethnic relationships, just as our relationship with the our own Tamil minority is intrinsic to the management of our larger and essential relationship with our sole  and giant neighbor India.


Imperative of Coexistence

Given the demographic reality of an ethnic group that cross cuts the borders of India and Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka’s Tamil issue is not only a domestic problem for Sri Lanka, it is a domestic problem for India as well. It is for Sri Lanka, an internal problem with an external dimension while for India it is an external problem with an internal (Tamil nadu) dimension.

An unresolved problem with Sri Lanka’s Tamils can and probably will jeopardize Sri Lanka’s relations with India, while a bad relationship with India will deprive Sri Lanka of one of the instruments which can help safely regulate our relations with our Tamil minority.

Given our aloneness on India’s doorstep, we cannot afford to sustain a negative strategic relationship with India. For this reason too, we have to resolve our problem with our own Tamil minority.

Similarly, given the fact that the Tamils and Sinhalese have to live together on a small island, we have to resolve our problems, and for this we need India’s leverage; therefore we need good relations with India.

There is thus an existential imperative of dual co-existence: Sri Lanka’s co-existence with India, and Sinhala co-existence with the Tamils. Co-existence would be unsustainable and impossible, if it were to be purely on the terms of one or the other – India or Sri Lanka, Tamils or Sinhalese.


Eschewing Extremes

How then to coexist? What are good relations and how are we to maintain them? I would argue that is it by adhering to that crucial concept known to classical antiquity but which we inherited from India’s greatest philosopher and teacher the Buddha, namely the concept of the Middle Path, eschewing the extremes.

What are the extremes that must be eschewed? On the one hand, supine dependence, the posture of being a puppet of India or Tamil Nadu or utilizing India as a patron for the assumption of political power.  On the other hand the posture of xenophobic bellicosity towards India or any of its constituent components.

The first posture of dependence stems from an underestimation of Sri Lanka’s strength and an overestimation of India’s in relation to Sri Lanka. It underestimates the internal factor and overestimates the external factor.

The second posture of inflexible hostility and confrontation stems from the overestimation of Sri Lanka’s strength and the underestimation of India’s. It overestimates the internal factor and underestimates external realities.

These extremes manifest themselves with regard to Sri Lanka’s ethnic question as well. One posture demands the acceptance by Sri Lanka of the Tamil minority’s and Tamil Nadu’s stand on the issue or the mechanical adoption of India’s internal political model. This position overestimates the strength and resolve of the Tamils, (local, sub-regional and global) while it underestimates the resolve of the Sinhalese (especially the Sinhala Buddhists) who are an overwhelming majority on the territory of the island.  It fails to comprehend that just as objective realities confer rationality on India’s claims to preponderance or pre-eminence in the regional space, and on the USA’s claims to leadership in the world, the same factors render rational the Sinhalese claim to pre-eminence on/leadership of the island. It fails to recognize that power relations on the island cannot but be asymmetrical.

The second extreme posture ignores India’s views of the island’s ethnic problem, rides roughshod over Tamil sentiments and aspirations and attempts to settle the issue unilaterally, on Sinhala terms, in keeping with the fears and prejudices of the Sinhala Buddhist majority. This posture stems from the overestimation of the Sinhalese and underestimation of the Tamils; an overestimation of the cultural core of the country and an underestimation of its strategic periphery. As Samir Amin points out, systems begin to unravel at their peripheries.


Mapping the Middle Path

What then constitutes the Middle Path, in the intertwined, intersecting and interacting domains of Indo-Lanka and Sinhala–Tamil relations?

The Middle Path would, I submit, be constituted by and between two boundaries: the recognition of reality and the striving for balance.

The recognition of reality consists of grasping the statics and dynamics of the situation. The statics, constants or structural factors are those geographic and demographic realities of our location, marked by massive presence and absence – the presence of India and the absence of other neighbors and linguistic or religious kin. The dynamics, variables or conjunctural factors are twofold. Firstly the recent surge of India’s power, making it an emerging global player in its own right, and one of the two main power centers of Asia, the continent projected as the rising planetary power. Secondly, the fact that if it is a choice between Sri Lanka and India, no other Asian or world player will risk its relations with India. The USA refused to do so in the 1980s. Today it is aligned strategically with India, while Russia, China and Iran all value their relations with Delhi. These will always put their own national interests ahead of India’s or anyone else’s, but they will certainly place their equation with India above that with Sri Lanka. Cuba had the USSR to help it balance off the USA. We have and had no equivalent. We had no US card to play in the 1980s and we have no China card to play today. Sri Lanka cannot hold out against the region’s superpower and world’s sole superpower, still less the crystallizing bloc of the two.

As for Pakistan, a close and true friend, we can only pray that it survives its present travails. Sri Lanka’s capacity to balance India off to some degree with our relations with the Islamic world, will stand jeopardized by the rising anti Muslim chauvinism of its smaller, racist and xenophobic political parties.

The necessary recognition of reality must surely include the basic calculus that a vulnerably positioned and solitary ethnic group which numbers 18 million (the Sinhalese), cannot take a stand which is hostile to or alienates 80 million Tamils, 1.5 billion Muslims, 2 billion Christians, and 1 billion Indians. The internal cannot be imposed upon nor hold out forever against the external.

However, the recognition of reality is a two way street. The tragedy of India’s experience with Sri Lanka in the 1980s,  not to mention those of Russia in Afghanistan and the USA in Iraq, must surely remind the world community that no solution or model imposed from outside, devoid of the consent of the Sinhalese – a solid majority with a long continuous history, existence and consciousness–  can stand. The external cannot substitute for the internal, nor can a minority for the majority.   

The other boundary of the Middle Path is the search, ideally for synthesis but minimally for balance. This is a synthesis of or balance between the interests of India and Sri Lanka, and the Sinhalese and Tamils.              


Attaining Equilibrium

Balance is objectively feasible because the Sinhala preponderance on the island is checked by Indian preponderance in the region, and vice versa. Crudely put, the Sinhalese are a majority on the island but a minority in the sub-region, while the Tamils are a majority in the sub-region but are a minority on the island. The objective situation therefore is structured in such a way as to provide checks and balances. What we – all parties and players– have to do is to adopt policies and practices that reflect that objective demographic reality.

India’s is an ethnically multi-polar mosaic which is safely accommodated by a federal framework. Sri Lanka’s is an ethnically bipolar model, the bipolarity of which must not be aggravated — especially given the pull factor of the adjacent Tamil Nadu — by a federal system. The Sinhalese majority will resist this, as it has for half a century and as it fought separatism for a quarter. Conversely, a unitary system with no serious devolution of power, in a state that is non-secular and gives a privileged place to one language and one religion (the disallowance of Islamic attire in the schools of in secular France in vastly different from it being done in non-secular Sri Lanka), cannot be imposed on the Tamil minority, which let us recall, is not a minority in the sub-region, has leverage upon New Delhi through Chennai, and on Washington DC through the Diaspora.

India cannot afford recrudescent Tamil Nadu separatism which thrives on the charge that New Delhi is insensitive to Tamil Nadu’s feelings for their ethnic kin in Northern Sri Lanka. Tamil Nadu must not be viewed through the lenses of Sinhala racism. It is an important and influential component of the Indian Union, and when push comes to shove, carries far more weight than Sri Lanka and the Sinhalese, in New Delhi, Washington, Moscow and Beijing. If faced with a serious strategic choice, Delhi will choose Chennai over Colombo. It is up to Sri Lanka to prevent matters coming to that.

Sri Lanka needs to countervail and neutralize the anti-Sinhala extremists in Tamil Nadu and the Diaspora. It can do so only by satisfying at least the anti-Tiger Sri Lankan Tamils and the no less anti Tiger Tamil Nadu elite fraction of the all-India power-bloc. (This fraction is visibly represented by The Hindu newspaper grouping). This requires a threefold solution: a credible dedication to non-discrimination, the credible dispelling of any suspicion that Sri Lanka is attempting to dismantle, delay or dilute the full implementation of the 13th amendment, and a credible commitment to move beyond it (to 13th amendment plus) as chalked out by the APRC and permitted by the parliamentary balance as well as Constitutional rigidities.

Sri Lanka may soon—very soon—have to choose between a needless “draw” or drawdown in the war and devolution. As the Indian election draws near the price we have to pay will increase. It is far better to settle for the lower price of devolution, and a lower priced devolution, sooner. If there is a ceasefire of any sort before complete, total and final victory, the Tigers will declare a triumph (as they did after the IPKF left) and having regrouped , rested and re-armed (or been rearmed) launch a counteroffensive on our demoralized armed forces.

Even if we avoid such a scenario and as is probable, win the quasi-conventional war in this quarter, a bitter ethnic polarization and socio-economically ruinous protracted occupation is unavoidable unless sufficient political space is opened up at the periphery and our Tamil allies are truly empowered. Tamil (sub) nationalism cannot be contained by the status quo of the unitary, un-devolved, non-secular Sri Lankan state structure and concomitant centralist political culture.

The balanced solution of fullest autonomy within a unitary framework may be opposed by smaller extremist forces among the Sinhala majority. The grim reality though, is that even at their most disruptive and violent, these forces can do much less harm to the Sri Lankan state than a decision by India, under mounting Tamil Nadu pressure, to tilt against Sri Lanka, and a corresponding decision by India’s partner the USA to mount economic pressure on Sri Lanka through multilateral institutions and agencies. Under the unlamented Bush administration there was daylight between the positions of the US and the EU. Under the new and universally welcomed Obama administration there may be no daylight between the positions of the US, EU and India.