India-Sri Lanka ties Emotional factors Vs realism

Dr S Saraswathi

Under the Indian Constitution, foreign policy is a subject exclusively under the Central List. Still it cannot be denied that all States feel the impact of the country’s foreign policy in general. None of them can remain a mute spectator without reacting.  In policies towards neighbouring countries, adjacent States are directly affected because of geographical proximity and want to be consulted. It is a legitimate demand.
In the case of Sri Lanka, besides physical nearness, linguistic and cultural factors bind parts of the two countries so closely that they come into play to influence and if possible to direct India’s relations with this island nation. The result is the   manifestation once again of strong Tamil linguistic patriotism – this time attempting to dictate the country’s foreign relationship towards a neighbouring country.
Tamil speaking population constitute a large minority of about 18 per cent of the total population in Sri Lanka while 74 per cent speak Sinhala. There are Indian Tamils as well as Sri Lankan Tamils.
The affinity between Tamils in India and Sri Lanka is not just through a common language, but is cemented by historical ties and cultural oneness and good deal of kinship relations which make for empathy and fellow-feeling. The conflict today in India is over the struggle of these emotional attachments in a federal system of linguistic States clamouring for a say in determining the country’s relations with this island nation
Sri Lanka became independent from British Rule in 1948, about six months after Indian independence. Within a decade started fierce inter-racial conflict between Sinhalese and Tamils and led to many riots. Tamils in Sri Lanka demanded official recognition of Tamil language and formation of a Tamil State in a federal set up.  Presently, Tamil is the second national language and Sinhalese is the official and national language.
Tamil Nadu is directly affected by the internal political turmoil in Sri Lanka by the arrival of thousands of Tamil refugees in the crackdown on Tamil groups by the Sri Lankan government. Frequent assaults on Tamil fishermen by the Sri Lankan naval forces create ill-will and hatred and spoil friendly neighbourly relations. In such an atmosphere, any affected State and people having more stakes in the matter can expect to be heard.
Three recent events brought to the centre stage conflict of viewpoints between public opinion supported by a number of political parties in Tamil Nadu and the Union government on a point of India’s foreign relations. One is about training of Sri Lankan Air Force personnel in India, the second is about the Eelam Tamil Rights Protection Conference in Chennai organized by the Tamil Eelam Supporters Organisation (TESO), and the third about Sri Lankan President Rajapakse’s visit to Sanchi to inaugurate a centre for Buddhist Studies.
The Government of Tamil Nadu strongly objected to training of Sri Lankan Air Force personnel in India as a “reprehensible act” of the Union government showing scant regard for the views of the Government and of the sentiments of the people of Tamil Nadu.
Even the Tamil Nadu Congress was in agreement with other political parties on this issue and demanded that officials who were already being trained in the Defence Staff Services College in Wellington should be sent back immediately.  It also assured that the state Congress would see to it that such training courses not take place in future.
With regard to the TESO conference, the Union government objected to the word “Eelam” in the title (associated with Tamil separatist movement of the terrorist group LTTE) and suggested renaming the conference as the Tamils Livelihood Rights Conference. The objection was later withdrawn on the clarification provided by the organizers and explanation of the historical significance of its meaning and its usage since time immemorial.
The conference passed a resolution demanding that India should move a resolution in the United Nations for bestowing full rights on the Tamil community in the island to decide their own political future. It stated, “India should, therefore, take necessary steps to ensure a total change of environment in Sri Lanka and a life of equality and peace to the Sri Lankan Tamils by redeeming their political, economic, and cultural rights.”
The conference refrained from passing any direct resolution on Tamil Eelam, but some leaders vehemently pleaded for it in their speeches, according to press reports.
These expressions amount to interference in the internal matters of another country prompted by emotional feelings of staunch Tamil groups and not by any realist calculations of the nation’s interests which should determine foreign relations.
Sometimes, if emotions are allowed to run its course, it creates some rather absurd situations like refusal to permit even sports and entertainments with teams from   ethnic, linguistic groups considered unfriendly.
Demonstration of opposition to Sri Lankan President’s visit to Sanchi for a non-political event also seems irrelevant to the emotional problem of Indian Tamils.  Instead of highlighting the seriousness of the real issue haunting the Tamils in Tamil Nadu, it helps the unaffected to ignore Tamil sentiments.
A country’s foreign policy and relations consist of strategies chosen to promote the nation’s self-interests, and to achieve its goals. In the world today, every nation is depending on one another for survival and development. Interdependence between nations is growing and global interests and national interests are inter-mixed. Our task is to find space for emotional satisfaction within political relations.
Both India and Sri Lanka are members of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) and BIMSTEC (a regional organisation of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka for technical and economic cooperation). They have a number of mutually beneficial economic programmes. Their strategic location between the western world and South and South-East Asia demand strengthening of friendly ties not only between governments, but between respective citizens – the non-state actors.
While people have to show restraint in exhibiting their emotions, governments have to realize that diplomacy cannot be isolated from ground reality. State governments under globalization are exposed to direct relations with foreign countries. There is need for closer Union-State dialogue and understanding in determining foreign relations so as to avoid situations faced in Sanchi recently or in the talks with Bangladesh earlier over water sharing boycotted by the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. This will help all. INFA
(The author is former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


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