"India will be there whenever you need us"

(if you do things our way)


Indian High Commissioner
Taranjit Singh Sandhu

by Rajeewa Jayaweera

Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Taranjit Singh Sandhu recently delivered the 14th Annual Sujata Jayawardena Memorial Oration at the invitation of the Alumni Association of the University of Colombo. His oration stressed on the current status of Indo-Sri Lankan relations based on India’s regional policy of ‘Sabika Sath Sabka Vikas’ or ‘Progressing and ‘Neighborhood First.’

Three areas as in relations between the two countries (3 Bs) - the Buddhist connection (a pet theory of most visiting Indian dignitaries), Broad friendship between the two nations and Blend of Indian assistance in sync with Sri Lanka’s needs.

Buddhism was referred as the bedrock consolidating relations. Reference was also made to an Indian Buddhist identity. Buddhism in the sub-continent was systematically obliterated by Brahmins to protect their caste system. According to 2011 Indian census, the Buddhist community in India have dwindled to 0.7% of its population of 1.2 billion and are mostly neo-Buddhist converts from the marginalized Dalit community. There are hardly any known people to people contacts between Buddhists in the two countries, even though thousands of Buddhist pilgrims visit India regularly to worship at places such as Bodh Gaya and Varanasi.

The claim of ‘Broad’ relations with Sri Lanka due to "friendship without any conditions" may

be accepted by our leaders due to the lack of any other choice and a few who prefer to ignore historical facts; the friendship between the two countries has been anything but without conditions and continue to be so.

No narration is necessary of India aiding and abetting Tamil terrorists commencing late 1970s. The halting of the Vadamarachchi operation due to Indian insistence prolonged the conflict by another 22 years bringing untold misery and death to hundreds of thousands of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims alike. India’s food airdrop over Jaffna on June 4, 1987, by Air Force transporters accompanied by fighter aircraft, cannot be denominated as a purely humanitarian intervention. There were powerful political overtones coupled with intervention strategy inherent in the airdrop. It also led to the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, which legitimized the coerced invitation from the Sri Lankan government for India to intervene.

The airdrop amounted to a gross violation of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and airspace. It remains etched in the memories of those who lived through it.

The force-fed Indo-Sri Lanka Accord resulting in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, over time has come to be accepted by Sri Lankans for want of a better option. Not only was President Jayewardene pressured into signing a treaty primarily drafted by the Indian government. The Sri Lankan government was also required to give up some of its foreign policy and military decision-making.

The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 and its Annexure dealt with the creation of Provincial Councils in the North and East and power devolution. A lesser-known letter dated July 29, 1987, from Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, addressed to President JR Jayewardene and accepted in toto by the Sri Lankan President spelled out conditions GoSL was required to adhere on foreign policy and defense matters, entirely unrelated to the Tamil issue.

Para 2 i, ii, iii and iv refers to; (a) employment of foreign military and intelligence personnel will not be prejudicial to Indo-Sri Lanka relations (b) Trincomalee or any other port will not be made available for use by any other country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests (c) restoration of Trincomalee oil tank farm will be undertaken by the two countries as a joint venture (d) Sri Lanka’s agreements with foreign broadcasting organizations to ensure they are not for military or intelligence purposes.

To the best of this writer’s knowledge, Sri Lanka has not reneged on these undertakings except when President Rajapaksa in 2014 foolishly permitted a Chinese submarine to dock in Colombo. Development of Hambantota Port was awarded to the Chinese after India declined the initial offer.

Para 3 i and ii relates to the deportation of all Sri Lankan citizens in India found to be engaging in terrorist activities or advocating separatism or secessionism and India would provide training facilities and military supplies for Sri Lankan security forces.

India reneged on its commitments from day one. LTTE and other terrorists continued to operate from Tamil Nadu for decades freely. Even though India did provide training facilities for Sri Lankan soldiers, she never supplied offensive military equipment to Sri Lanka during the conflict.

In 2007, India declined to provide radar with three-dimensional capabilities after the Indian supplied equipment with two-dimensional capabilities failed to detect LTTE aircraft involved in raiding the SLAF base in Katunayake. China and USA eventually filled the void despite Indian objections.

During the later stages of the conflict, India did provide naval intelligence on LTTE supply vessels which helped the Sri Lankan navy to hunt them down.

Despite India’s stated policy of not voting on country-specific issues, it voted in favor of the UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka in 2012 and 2013, not for any altruistic reasons as claimed, but due to the tail (Tamil Nadu state) wagging the dog (Union government).

"Our aid is not to raid and invade" does not sit well with the continued poaching by Tamil Nadu fisher raiders in northern Sri Lankan waters. The hapless Sri Lankan leaders, after making repeated requests to the Indian government have now fallen silent. They are constrained from raising the issue at international forums.

India is fast making regional grouping SAARC irrelevant due to a bilateral issue with Pakistan. The 19th SAARC summit due be held in Pakistan in 2016 was cancelled due to an Indian boycotted. She has hinted the possibility of another boycott of the 2018 summit in Pakistan. However, India insisted, Sri Lanka could not raise the issue of the violation of its airspace in 1987 on grounds that SAARC was a forum for multilateral and not bilateral matters between member states.

Self-interest has been India’s guiding light in its relations with Sri Lanka. In the backdrop of such a checkered relationship, to state "We have never believed in setting conditions for friendship" is a travesty. To dismiss such a track record as mere "hesitations of history" adds insult to injury.

The geographical proximity, much acclaimed as an advantage is in fact, the most significant disadvantage for neighboring countries such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Pakistan alone, chiefly due to its nuclear capability, can stand its ground in its relations with India. Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Neighborhood First’ policy notwithstanding, it is this proximity which is cause for discomfort in neighboring countries and justification used by India for its big brotherly and high-handed conduct.

It also compels India to control foreign, defense, trade and internal affairs of neighboring countries it considers as her backyard. In the 1980s, ensconced in a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union, it insisted Sri Lanka wind-down relations with USA and Israel. In the current context, having become America’s proxy in the Indian Ocean Region and with Israel as its single biggest arms supplier, India wishes for Sri Lanka and other neighboring states to minimize relations with China.

The ’Blend’ aspect refers to "India’s desire to share all it has with Sri Lanka." Total Development Assistance by India amounts to USD 2.9 billion of which USD 545 million amounts to outright grants. As per Dept. of Commerce 2016 statistics, Sri Lanka’s Exports to India amounted to USD 551 million and Imports from India, USD 3.8 billion.

Bhutan is prevented from having its own foreign and defense policy. Nepal has suffered for decades due to Indian interventions in its internal affairs, the most recent being the constitutional crisis and the five-months long economic blockade that followed. It precipitated the fall of Prime Minister KP Oli’s government in 2016. The Maldives is being admonished for entering into a Free Trade Agreement with China without first consulting India and for its proposed Ocean Observation Station with China.

The need for neighboring states to respect India’s security concerns is a given. That and that alone is India’s entitlement. She should not tell neighbors with whom to interact besides how and what to trade unless they have security implications. Neighboring states amending and making Constitutions should be strictly internal affairs. India’s dealings with neighbors on a ‘Boss’ and ‘Subordinate’ standpoint must essentially change. They should not be expected genuflect and kowtow to Indian diktats. ‘Sabika Sath, Sabka Vikas’ should be all about equal partners and mutual respect.

This writer is neither a politician nor a foreign affairs analyst. However, I share the resentment many of my compatriots feel towards Indian policy on Sri Lanka, both present, and past. A litmus test to this statement would be the paucity of locals who would cheer for the Indian side during a cricket match in Colombo between India and Pakistan. A quiet chat with evening strollers around the monument for fallen Indian soldiers adjoining the parliament, who lived through the 1980s would be most enlightening.

Not all the handouts, trade, aid, FDIs, and platitudes will make that wariness go away. What needs to be addressed by the High Commissioner who claims "India will be there whenever you need us" is: can he and will he acknowledge past misdeeds (not hesitations) and assure people of this country of nonrecurrence in the future? It is such an assurance, for what it is worth, that would help ordinary citizens to change their "hostile mindset" as one local commentator recently described and move on.


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