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Playing India: a Beginner’s Guide?   

By Susantha Goonatilake


The successful test victory against India was a needed eye-opener in that a country of 20 million could keep at bay a country with one billion, at least in this narrow field of cricket.  It reminded me of the time when Sri Lanka with its back to the wall in the awful days of Chandrika Kumaratunga won the World Series in 1996.  I was in Cambodia and elated, feted the Sri Lankans there at the then only five-star hotel.  It was still the more enjoyable in that I had tried in vain to alert the then Sri Lankan  Defence Ministry and then Foreign Ministry about the details of the massive LTTE arms and people smuggling going on from Cambodia at that time but to no avail.  The only adjectives that I could use after discussions with them were "deaf and dumb".  Incompetence in both ministries had reached a high point.


India casts a huge shadow both positive and negative on Sri Lanka and the question is how should we play her culturally, politically and economically if not to our advantage, at least to the mutual advantage of both? First: no guts  anti-Indianism or its opposite of blind trust of Dambadiva.  We should first recall some basic facts that have been obfuscated not only by the foreign funded ‘piece’ (wrongly designated peace) industry and the ethnic studies industry but also through the lack of studies in our universities. 


Let us enumerate a few.


Ethnically, meaning genetically, we share many common threads as we do in the field of culture.  The 19th century and the early 20th century classifications into Aryans and Dravidians are not being taken seriously today except perhaps for Tamil Nadu political parties with their racist Dravidian appendage.  Yet the Sinhalese speak a North Indian dialect with some South Indian elements.  South Indian languages like Tamil have also a large input from Sanskrit especially in religious and technical matters.  Sinhalese also probably share some genetic and cultural traits with Southeast Asian island nations - even before the transmission of Sinhalese Buddhist ideas into Southeast Asia.


The first emergence of India as a major entity was at the time of Asoka, precisely also at the time when Sinhalese as a cultural force  come into the scene. Current archaeology though indicates that even before the emergence of Asokan interactions, Anuradhapura was a major urban centre with extensive trade links having the earliest examples of the Brahmi script.  In the course of time, Sri Lanka became a key cultural and trade centre with links across Asia including Northwards into what is today India itself.  For example the world's first foreign funded University complex was established by the Sinhalese in the 4th century AD in Bodhgaya and lasted for nearly thousand years.


The relatively peaceful intra-Asian civilisational interactions were disturbed in North India by Jihad like incursions into North India which laid waste through its intolerant ideology, major centres of learning such as Taxila and Nalanda. However Muslims came peacefully to Sri Lanka as traders as they did to Southeast Asia.  The real wars of cultural genocide arrived only with the coming of the Portuguese to Goa in India and with far greater devastation to Sri Lanka.  The subsequent European colonialists in the form of the Dutch and the British were in comparison relatively benign and the Independence that followed World War II had strong implications for India-Sri Lankan relations.


“Discovery of India


The 19th  and 20th  century "Discovery of India" especially its history was enriched by  a Sinhalese connection in that Indians unlike the Sinhalese had no real tradition of history up to the Kashmir chronicles of circa 10th  century. In the 19th century the Mahavamsa filled in key Indian events notably on early India’s greatest figure Asoka.  Nehru had a fondness for Buddhism as did the “untouchable” Dalit leader Ambedkar the principal author of the Indian Constitution.  And Buddhist symbols entered both the Indian flag and emblem. Ambedkar's Dalit-based Buddhist movement had connections with the Sinhalese Buddhist Renaissance.  Indian independence leaders had striking differences.  The science oriented Nehru’s vision wanting modern India to go for the best technology and Ghandhi wanting India to return to a simple village life. Anagarika Dharmapala had a telling comment on the backward looking Gandhi: “India cannot leap to modernity on the spinning wheel”. And Mukerji the founder of Jan Sangh, the precursor of the BJP had been the Secretary of Dharmapala's Maha Bodhi Society.


Significant Sri Lankan reverberations also occurred in South Indian politics.  Indian Tamil chauvinism was stoked by a Christian dominated "Jaffna School".  Tamil Nadu Dravidianism in rejecting Brahmanism was in turn influenced by Buddhist ideas then emerging from Sri Lanka (the yellow sataka of Tamil politicians reflects a Buddhist influence and is readily acknowledged as such by them).  Aspects of Sinhalese nationalism, that of the populist Hela movement, also was stoked by invented myths common to the Dravidian movement - both movements elevating the mythical Ravana to both fact and hero. And more recently while the Indian authorities on both the Ayodhya issue and the Sethu Samudra project have declared Ramayana as mythology, our foolish Tourist Board is marketing Sri Lanka as Ramayana territory.  The buildup of mythology-based sites like Sita Eliya pushed by the Tourist Board will only create another traditional homelands front.


Before Independence, there were views from Indian leaders which can only be described as territorial designs on Sri Lanka.  After Independence, things somewhat stabilized.  But the growth of Tamil Nadu separatism fed Tamil racist and separatist feelings in Sri Lanka.  After the Chinese defeated India in 1962, South Indian Tamil separatism died leading to Sri Lanka as the only place left for an independent Tamil state.  By the early 1970s, large quantities of arms were smuggled from South India to Sri Lanka and by the early 1980s, official India got directly into the act by creating and arming all the separatist groups for cross-border terrorism and an indirect invasion of the country.


Local bully meets regional bully


Poor JR adept at being a crude bully of the locals was caught flat-footed. He had to sign a demeaning unequal treaty with the regional bully, the so-called Indian Accord as Indian gun boats stood outside the harbour.  More recently, when Sri Lankan troops in the Jaffna peninsula was about to be overrun and in spite of Indian pretence at safeguarding Sri Lankan sovereignty India pointedly ignored our desperate calls for help. And although the initial perception was that the Norwegians were behind the infamous CFA which granted near sovereignty to the LTTE, the Indian hand had again been manipulating.   Over the last couple of years though, the Indians seem to have ultimately accepted Sri Lankan sovereignty and co-operated somewhat with Sri Lankan forces.  There is no doubt that this was because of military support given by Pakistan and China to Sri Lanka and the Indian fear of being left out. This in spite of M.K. Narayanan, the head of Indian spy services in 1987 and so in the thick of planning anti-Sri Lanka moves being today the National Security Advisor to the Indian Prime Minister. In this latter post, he succeeded Dixit who implemented matters in Colombo. Narayanan is still longing for a Lankan defeat. Read his statement this week in Singapore.


As we are now at the tail end of the proxy war against Sri Lanka started by official and unofficial India since the early 1970s, we should now ask how we should play India.  A repetition of the last 35 years must never ever occur. Let us take an elementay page out of cricket or for that matter out of any game. Know the background facts, assess them and act correctly. And remember, large populations do not guarantee primacy in all fields; India is a Lilliput in the Olympic Games and in many Quality of Life Indices, Sri Lanka is way-ahead of India.


No correct facts


As for correct facts, these are not known or hardly properly analyzed.  India has four universities that study Sri Lanka; Sri Lankan academics who study India or any foreign country in a serious manner are virtually non-existent. Those that do, often bat for the opposite side(s). Over 30 years ago, I was involved with the first foreign relations course in Colombo campus and was active with the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies at its founding. I cringe at what these have now become.


A few brave commentators carry the Sri Lankan message in the newspapers. But hovering over them are RAW agents and direct or indirect foreign policy wonks of India writing in Sri Lankan media.  In addition, there are the various piece agents throwing foreign money to buy media influence for subversion.  And while the present defence leadership carries out a determined war effort against the LTTE, no serious defence analyst among retired generals has yet appeared as has among their Indian counterparts.  In fact, some of the retired generals who failed us are happily consorting with ‘piece’ merchants who plan to downsize our armed forces! (For pieces of small silver - dollars to be exact.)


Yet key problems remain.  Even while winning the war, and especially afterwards, we must strengthen our thinking capacities.  Collecting facts, study and analysis on strategic matters should spread throughout the universities. Before that, we must first close down all those university-based groups sponsored by funds from dubious organisations which have been working for the enemy (even the Defence Academy till recently was infiltrated by ‘piece’ merchants).  The erosion of both truth and national will by these insidious forces are a strong contrast to India where all political forces join in on matters of perceived national security.  Witness not only Tamil Nadu parties but also the Communist Party of India clamouring last month to illegally annex Nachhadivu from Sri Lanka.


In the meantime we should recall that there are examples of smaller countries coexisting well with larger ones. Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam on the Chinese border, Sweden and Norway near to Russia, and Singapore next to Malaysia and Indonesia are examples for our two countries.  But Sri Lanka can also play internal cultural politics within India as India does on us using Tamil Nadu cultural politics.  Only if our Foreign Ministry could think creatively we could play the Buddhist Dalit card.  In South India we could play the Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh card, both these states being extremely wary of Tamilian politics.  And in Tamil Nadu itself we could play the Buddhist Dalit and Buddhist Tamil card while pointing out that although once Sri Lankan Tamils were all Hindus it is the Christians among them who provide the separatists’ ideological leadership - a clear parallel to the role of the Church in India's North East separatist movement.


Playing such cultural games should not necessarily be considered as antagonistic to India but as enriching our mutual relationships in different sectors.  Just like we can play multi polar games inside India, we can also play multi polar games outside notably with the SAARC countries, with South-East Asia and China as indeed we have done in the last few years.


Win-win possibilities


But the more strategic interactions in the coming decades are not those within Sri Lanka or within India or for that matter in the immediate SAARC neighborhood.  The major historic – and tectonic - event is the ongoing shift to Asia in the economic, political and cultural spheres.  The latter is considered the “soft power” end in a world of coming geopolitical relations, where massive military power becomes non-usable.  Soft power has been used by Bush as foreign policy in his alliance with Christian evangelists as has Islamic fundamentalists in certain Muslim countries.  China has already projected her soft power by hosting a major global Buddhist conference.


A binding overlay of Asian culture has been Buddhism and in addition in some parts of South East Asia, Hinduism. In contrast to other world belief systems both these spread peacefully in Asia as did mostly Confucianism. A strategic partnership building on these earlier overlays could see both India and Sri Lanka coming together in projecting a joint peaceful soft power.  That could be a win-win situation not only for India and Sri Lanka but also for the entire Asian region.

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