Written by N Sathiya Moorthy.

The idea of a land bridge linking Sri Lanka to its northern neighbour has been talked about long before China’s OBOR scheme and the Hambantota port project were even thought of. Fair enough, the latter has since materialised, but a dream that had been in the making since the days of the Ramayana only needs reviving– this one linking Sri Lanka to the larger Eurasian landmass and markets. However, a problem of perception between the two countries stands in the way. It is this suspicious mindset that has prevented the visible gains that each nation can obtain from the other from coming to fruition.

India did not have a reason to fear the Dravidian leaders in Tamil Nadu as ‘separatists’. But she did not want a ‘foreigner’ issue of a different kind in the South

The British ruled the two nations as separate entities, unlike the case with Myanmar, (then Burma) which was ruled from Delhi. Thus, when the much-talked-about fishing issue between the two nations came to be discussed between the then Madras Presidency authorities and the Colombo Government in the first quarter of the 20th century, it was as if two independent, sovereign nations were negotiating.  Owing to the post-Independence demarcation of maritime boundaries under the all-pervasive UNCLOS accords and consequent fishing issues, a new and alien element to the concept of ‘shared fishing’ between the two peoples emerged.

Mother nation

Every time a section of the Sri Lankan strategic community starts pin-pointing pitfalls in India relations and Indian attitudes in contemporary relations, they end up citing the ‘Ramayana invasion’ without reference to the demon-king of Ravana. As well as mythology, in relatively modern times, they would date the Indian aid, arming and training of the youthful Tamil militant groups, among them the LTTE, to a 1,000-year-old invasion by the Chola king, Rajaraja. Some even deem that LTTE’s Prabhakaran only adopted the Chola mascot of ‘Tiger’ as his outfit’s symbol to link to the Chola mythology.

It is another matter that the Sri Lankan Tamil community, alternating between conferring ‘mother nation’ status to India and claiming an independent ethnic identity native to the island-nation, at times older to the Sinhala majority, would then recall the humiliation which the Tamil king, Ellara, suffered in a duel at the hands of a youthful Sinhala counterpart, Duttegemunu, 1,000 years before the Chola conquest. However, until the Tamil issue became an issue, neither the Sinhalas, nor the Tamils in Sri Lanka had even heard of Ellara or Duttegemunu.

In the same vein, however, all Sinhalas, including anti-India sections in the Sri Lankan polity and society proudly agree that Buddhism, the religion over which they fought the Portuguese, came from India, and thus, India is the mother of their religion. Bodh Gaya in the north Indian State of Bihar, is to Sinhala-Buddhists in Sri Lanka as Mecca is to all Muslims in the world,  and Benares and Rameswaram, among holy places, are to all Hindus. The one goal of Sinhala-Buddhists in rural Sri Lanka is to take a pilgrimage to Buddhism’s holy shrines in India. Yet, when it comes to contemporary politico-strategic terms, they define India by the ‘Tamil’ identity of only six percent of the larger India’s total population.

Sound and fury

Another important factor in the relationship has been the size of the Tamil population in India, and the relative ease with which the present-day Tamil Nadu, then forming a part of the multi-lingual Madras Presidency, merged into the Union of India at Independence. New Delhi did not need to spend much time on understanding ethnic issues of the kind that the Dravidian polity in the pre-Independence era had flagged with sound and fury, preoccupied as it was with Partition, and post-Partition violence, war and else across the North, followed soon by the Tibetan issue and the subsequent China war.

The mainstreaming of the peaceful yet separatist Dravidian political thought with the advent of the elected DMK Government in Tamil Nadu, followed by the birth of the breakaway AIADMK and its emergence as an alternative and dominant political force in the state at the height of the 1983 Black July anti-Tamil pogrom in Sri Lanka, and the consequent influx of up to 250,000 Tamil refugees across the Palk Strait meant that the Indian State had to think only in terms of an inevitable emergence of a Bangladesh-like refugee situation.

India did not have a reason to fear the Dravidian leaders in Tamil Nadu as ‘separatists’. But she did not want a ‘foreigner’ issue of a different kind in the South, as the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees asserted their linguistic and cultural ‘superiority’ over Tamils in India. There were already minor issues and scuffles in the localities where refugee camps had been put up (again, learning from the ‘Bangladeshi migrants’ experience). The Indian state sought to arm and train the Sri Lankan Tamil youth, if only to ensure that they could defend themselves, their women and businesses, back home

Neither nation seemed to have imagined – nor were they possibly capable of imagining – what could go wrong. It is another matter that some in Sri Lanka thought that they could off-load the Sri Lankan Tamils onto the Indian neighbour as they, and also present-day Myanmar, had done in the case of Indian estate labour from the British days, decades earlier. From an Indian perspective, this was not an option, in the post-colonial world, when personal rights of life, livelihood and residence and citizenship had acquired new dimensions and meanings.

With the end of the ethnic war in Sri Lanka and the exit of the LTTE relations are improving. In its place has surfaced an adversarial China in India’s neighbourhood. Indian concerns in this regard are as much as they are in the case of any other neighbour with which China is engaged – just as it was in the case of the US presence during the Cold War era.

N Sathiya Moorthy is Director at the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Image Credit: by Indian Ministry of External Affairs/Flickr.

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