The new Colombo spirit

The new Colombo spirit
India is lately seen as a friend
by H.K. Dua, who was recently in Sri Lanka

SEVENTEEN years ago around this time of the year Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi landed at Colombo airport by an Indian Air Force plane in the thick of the Sri Lankan crisis.

He was not taken to the city in a cavalcade by road. Instead, he landed at Colombo’s Galle Face by an Indian military helicopter as IAF planes guarded the airspace. Across the seafront were to be seen Indian Navy ships which had been positioned apparently for any contingency.

As Editor of the Hindustan Times, I was one of the members of a large Press party which accompanied Rajiv Gandhi to cover his visit and talks with President Jayawardene.

Sri Lanka was facing a grim situation caught as it was in ethnic crisis. President Jayawardene, who needed a helping hand, had clearly succeeded in persuading Rajiv Gandhi to lend him one.

The result was the India-Sri Lanka Agreement which the two signed later in the day. Among other things, it provided for India sending the Indian Peace Keeping Force to bash up the LTTE which was threatening to carve out an independent Tamil Eelam in the northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

One could feel the tension in the air. President Jaywardene’s dissenting Prime Minister, R. Premadasa, stayed away to signal Sinhala opposition to the agreement.

By agreeing to send the IPKF, India instantly provoked a strong reaction among the Sinhalas so much so that on the following day a Sri Lankan Navy rating attacked Rajiv Gandhi with a rifle butt when he was inspecting the guard of honour. India’s Prime Minister could have lost his life that day a few minutes before he boarded the IAF helicopter for the airport to fly back to India.

India had willy-nilly jumped into the Sri Lankan mess. In the process it actually earned the anger of both the Sinhalas who hated India for sending its troops to Sri Lanka and the LTTE which the IPKF was to fight against. What was essentially a fight between the Sinhalas and the LTTE became an open conflict between India and the LTTE. No wonder, President Jayawardene was known for his cleverness.

Whatever President Jaywardene’s calculations, India’s relations with much of the dominant Sri Lankan opinion had become suspect. The IPKF was seen as an occupation force, and India as a hegemonistic neighbour. Centuries of a happy relationship had given way to a quick-fix that did not work but left a legacy of intense distrust.

Seventeen years later, now one, however, experiences a sea-change in the relations between India and Sri Lanka. Distrust has given way to the belief that India means well for Sri Lanka and is a friend and not really a Big Brother, throwing its weight around.

You can feel the change on landing at Colombo’s Bandaranaike airport itself. An Indian no longer needs to get a visa for visiting Sri Lanka; the immigration officer at the airport simply looks at the passport, stamps a visa, virtually letting you walk across with a welcoming smile.

Colombo city is an hour’s drive away and you see, of all things, the Indian Oil Corporation’s petrol stations. The IOC has secured rights to sell petrol at over 100 outlets along Sri Lanka’s highways.

In the eighties, India was worried that Sri Lanka might lease out the strategic Trincomalee port on the eastern coast to the Americans for setting up what they call Rest and Recreation facilities, perhaps a naval base close to the Indian coast. The Indian Oil Corporation now runs the oil tank farm at the port to maintain fuel supplies.

The two countries have signed a Free Trade Agreement — the first for India with any nation. The two-way trade between the countries has crossed $ 1.33 billion. They are also working towards signing an Economic Partnership Agreement to expand bilateral cooperation, joint ventures and investment. India has also opened a credit line of $ 150 million to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan Airline flies to as many as eight destinations in India, the Indian Railways are being considered for managing the Sri Lankan Railways for two or three years. Mutual cooperation is also envisaged in the areas of IT and peaceful uses of space. There is also a proposal in the works to start a ferry service between Colombo and Cochin and Colombo and Tuticorin.

These developments are not of mean significance. They indicate the evolution of a new relationship between the two neighbours. Patience, changed perceptions and some effort have gone into rebuilding the ties. The two neighbours have come to realise that they have no choice but to live like brothers.

The new Prime Minister, Mr Mohindra Rajpakse, Foreign Minister Laxman Khadirgamar, Opposition leader and former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremsinghe and President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s key peace negotiator, Mr Jayanta Dhanapala, they all spoke warmly about the current state of relations with India. “They have reached a level of irreversible excellence,” Mr Laxman Khadirgamar tells his own people and visiting friends from India. Mr Rajpakse, who visited India recently, was no less warm about relations with India.

Speaking to me in his office (a picture of Che Guevara was hanging prominently on the wall), even the General Secretary of the Janatha Vimukhti Peramuna (JVP), Mr Tylvin Silva, whose extreme Left-wing party intensely hated India until recently, told me that India after all is a friend of Sri Lanka.

A major factor that has brought about a change in the quality of relations is New Delhi’s categorical declaration that for India the integrity and unity of Sri Lanka is an article of faith and that any solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic crisis has to be found within the framework of Sri Lanka remaining one country.

India has made it known that it would prefer a peaceful Sri Lanka in its neighbourhood instead of its remaining caught in an enervating conflict. Also, it will support a negotiated settlement which could restore peace in the strife-torn republic, is acceptable to all communities, ensures a democratic and plural polity and guarantees human rights for all citizens.

With the withdrawal of the IPKF began the Sri Lankans believing in Indian credentials. Where the sight of Indian troops was an anathema to the Sri Lankans just a few years ago, the Indian Navy and Army personnel recently provided relief winning the hearts and minds of the Sinhalas in the flood-hit southern Sri Lanka.

New Delhi is totally opposed to the creation of a separate Tamil State, an Eelam next to its southern coast. The creation of an Eelam is not in India’s strategic and security interest. No one in India, not even in Tamil Nadu, can be fond of the LTTE, which was responsible for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Indian opposition to the LTTE and Eelam has indeed brought India and Sri Lanka closer.

What is significant is that the leaders of various persuasions in Sri Lanka are now keen that India should help in bringing about a peace settlement in Sri Lanka. Most parties, in fact, want India to put pressure on the LTTE so that it agrees to sign a peace settlement with the Sri Lankan government.

India would welcome the resumption of the stalled peace process, leading to a negotiated settlement, so that there is peace in India’s neighbourhood. And somehow it is sure that President Chandrika Kumaratunga would not be unmindful of India’s essential security concerns while pursuing a peace settlement.

India, however, has learnt the hard way that playing Big Brother to force a settlement is in nobody’s interest — certainly not in India’s. Wisely, it has come to realise that brokering a deal — even honestly brought about — doesn’t win friends and influence people.