Imaging India and strategizing Indo-Sri Lanka symbiosis
Former Professor of Archaeology (Peradeniya), Former Director General Central Cultural Fund, Former High Commissioner to India
Having returned from India after a premature recall as High Commissioner, I am pleased to make my first public talk at the BCIS. Yet, it is also associated with a sad memory. We had a final meeting at this very hall at a ceremony to launch the journal on International Affairs edited by Tissa Jayatilleke for BCIS published by Sage India. After most guests departed, Lakshman Kadirgamar along with Tissa, myself and Her Excellency Nirupama Rao had a pleasant chat. At that time he revealed plans for the Rajive Gandhi Centre at the BCIS with JNU links. That night Kadirgamar was assassinated. I avoided any official functions here and this is my first visit to the BCIS since then.
Kadirgamar viewed the Indian dimension as a political and cultural imperative and reality. He also had a very personal affection for India and trusted her goodwill. The cultural imperative had a wider scope and a mutually dependent dynamic. To him it was a natural continuum of our legendary and historical relationship with India. This relationship was galvanized through several binding factors. Under his able guidance BCIS became a hub for an India orientation. In the last three years of his life, a galaxy of Indian academics, military personnel and other specialists in the field of economics and international relations converged at high profile seminars and conferences chartering joint policies on security, conflict resolution, economics and culture. He fine tuned that relationship. It is up to you to decide how much of that dream and vision is alive today or have we lost our way in the Indian Ocean! We need statesmen with wisdom and not mere politicians. Such statesmen are those who passionately love his or her country and who do not compromise national interest. That was Kadirgamae’s valued vision and personality. Ladies and Gentlemen, I wish to dedicate this short presentation to the memory of Lakshman Kadirgamar!
Imaging India and how we understand Indo-Sri Lanka symbiosis is not very relevant in today’s geo- political scenario but also of crucial importance for regional harmony. Imaging India could have multiple views. It is a landmass centrally located and representing multi forms of diversity ranging from bio diversity to cultural, economic, demographic, resources, religious, language variants to name a few. India is also a country with many histories extending from the pre historic to the contemporary period. Such variations are embedded in each of the States in post Colonial India. In reality these States represent different countries within the Union of India.
Thus to us India presents several personalities images, identities, attitudes and responses. I moved from Colombo for a 10 year stay in north India and researched on South India. I am yet attempting to touch the anatomy, personality and a complex India.
Those who deal with India, especially in spheres of diplomacy and politics, need to understand this ground reality. India is not New Delhi. It largely rests within the States and beyond the English speaking minority elite of New Delhi. Especially the Ministry of External Affairs in Sri Lanka must visualize and touch India beyond the pale of cocktail circuit and a majority of Delhi-based Think Tank – NGO “experts”. We need to be familiar with India’s history, languages, culture, sentiments of the common people and all those who in reality represent the personality and aspirations of India beyond the metropolis. Or else to us India will always remain an illusion and we will constantly be confronted with defeatist and half backed policies in our interactions with India. What is needed is to understand and formulate a win-win situation with India and regain some of the lost ground and dignity we lost since the demise of Kadirgamar.
India is our nearest neighbor. We need to recognize global realities/challenges facing India and conversely its response to this situation by an internal restructuring of the political- economy and administrative readjustment. The changing social landscape of India under Narendra Modi and its ideology of a new political and economic power strategy were presented under the title, Make In India.
The expressive deliverance pronounced by the PM, on the morning of 2014 September 25th, was crafted and nurtured through his personal life and as a statesman-strategist in Gujarat. He, more than any other, realizes that this may be the final countdown for India to thrust itself towards the logical end of modernization and social reconstruction. This includes the restructuring and revitalization of internal social and economic base and necessary administrative apparatus i.e. technological, civil, banking, education, health, culture, urban and rural habitats, capital investments, scientific application, information systems (Digital India), efficienizing and harnessing the vast labour force etc. This long list of areas is the vertical or internal reconstruction.
The horizontal dynamic represents India’s security concern and good-will. The PM unfolded this vision commencing the very day he took over office and met with the SAARC political leadership. In his agenda, Mr. Modi placed SAARC and Indian Ocean on track as an integral reality and security imperative. He has gauged the value and strength of shared culture within the SAARC region and the potential offered by the region as India’s safety valve while NAM is losing its relevance in the new global order and hegemonic realignments. India will remember these sentiments and the neighborhood will hold India to its word. PM Modi has taken the long view of history and cemented the synergy of tradition and modernity. If Mr. Modi is able to neutralize the dialectical contradiction of India – ranking sixth in the number of billionaires and one third of the world’s poorest in the same country – he then deserves to be remembered in the chronicles of Bharat!
Now that the wheels are set in motion, this philosophy, ideology and action plan encompassing India will continue to persist due to internal and global imperatives and realities – even if there is a regime change. It is with that reality in mind that we need to strategize and prioritize Sri Lanka’s role on a canvass of realpolitik. Consequently, cumulative impact of India’s new reality needs to be viewed and measured against Sri Lanka’s own national interests and planning and so as to establish a balanced dialogue with a friendly India and maintain good neighborly relationships while securing our sovereignty, national integrity and self respect.
Strategic planning: Multi-track India Policy
In the eyes of the present regime in Sri Lanka, there is a bias towards lending priority to Economic Diplomacy (ED) with a focus on promoting trade, encouraging growth, attracting investment and in general supporting business. ED cannot function on a stand alone policy. On the contrary, it is more fruitful to situate ourselves within a multi track strategy having a holistic approach in time and space.
In view of this, Sri Lanka needs to strategize and place on track an India Policy. In his own way Kadirgamar was working towards this goal. Somehow it was never in the agenda of our foreign affairs policy which is largely reactive, ad hoc and a dependence on inculcators. We need to fathom India’s overarching physical scale; its ability to mobilize resources, wield striking power and capacity to dominate; our proximity of location to India; shared socio- cultural connectivity; economic synergy; India as one of the fastest growing economies of the world. Our action plan in the next five years needs to be conscious of the above dynamics and situate a short term, medium term and long term India Policy and not some half baked reactive parochial “anti India” response. We need to engage India on a one on basis with pro active strategies and with an open mind. We need to think big never under estimate our own strengths, though small in scale never with a dependent psyche.
It is here that we wish to redefine ED and to recognize an inclusive and dual strategy as horizontal and vertical. The vertical is identified with the metropolitan hubs but limited in range. Horizontal strategy is one of Out of New Delhi and metropolitan hubs representing – connectivity with the individual States in India. This essentially calls for ED to be based on a dialectical relationship and interactive process where economic factors alone cannot function on a stand alone basis. Most certainly there is a need to keep tabs on the metropolitan centre but there is a greater India we need to recognize and cultivate. This means to move beyond the metropolitan hubs.
For this purpose during my tenure of office, supported by our team of officers in New Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai, we identified and documented a series of states possessing potentialities for socio-cultural interaction; investments; inter-faith synergy; knowledge dissemination; wellness; middle scale industries; diverse tourism promotion; aviation and shipping routes etc. One area of discussion we had with Chambers of Commerce and Pharma Industry is the potential Sri Lanka holds as a primary port of convergence and portal for collaborative processing/assembling centers and re-export products. Discussions were extended to collaborative ventures of state of the art hospitals, Universities and tourism initiatives the latter incorporating a novel concept of Spirituality and Leisure ventures. This concept was unfolded in Orissa, Kerala, Assam and also in Chandigarh. In the case of the Assam we identified tea, tourism and Buddhist tourism. In Punjab and Haryana potentialities were discussed on light industries, education and pharama industries. Holy Guru Nanayak’s trail in Sri Lanka was to combine with Golf tournaments promoted by the diaspora Sikh community arriving from the West. Kerala was pleased to discuss and place on track shipping, tourism plan (luxury cruise), hospital, heritage initiatives and middle level industries. Multiple initiatives were discussed with Orissa.
Spatial distribution of Indian states, for our purpose, were identified on the basis of potential each region carries in terms of advantages and value added natural resources, route network, markets, investment and infrastructure and open minded attitude, political climate etc. Within these parameters we also took in to consideration ecological, education, historical, heritage & culture, linguistic and religious diversity as plus points reaching out to such states for multi track initiatives. In other words this is a valued “people to people connectivity”. During my work with Laksman Kadirgamar as Senior Advisor, we initiated a series of such action plans in South India on Shared Culture and Peace initiatives between our regions that were greatly appreciated as a successful venture.
On a broad area the following selection represents as our portals
1. Northern Sector (Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand)
2. North East Sector (W.Bengal, Assam, Bhutan, Sikkim, Meghalaya)
3. South East Sector (Orissa, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh)
4. South West (Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra)
5. Western Sector (Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, West Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan).
This was not an effort to by pass the Central Government but to support and enhance connectivity between Sri Lanka and integral components of the Federation with an effort to establish a Second Protocol under the aegis and blessings of the two governments. Sri Lanka has already encouraged similar norms where India is permitted to work with the North and East on rehabilitation and developmental strategies.
In addition, we connected with the vernacular media (only 20% or less of the population read English news papers), good will missions, dialogues and participation at awareness programs, seminars and conclaves, exhibitions, and with state, private and religio-cultural sector connectivity.
Showcasing Sri Lanka in New Delhi
The High Commission premise in New Delhi is endowed with an attractive and two spacious reception halls. We planned to make best use of this facility as an event hub by inviting diplomats, politicians, business circles, artists, heritage persons, academics, showcasing Sri Lanka and unfold fruitful dialogs. In the month of May we had a successful event titled “Many Voices of Sri Lanka” with a panel discussion. Diplomats, journalists, academics and interested members of the learned public participated at this event.
From August 2015 until April 2016, the following events were expected to be undertaken at the above venue. As I was recalled, I am unaware whether the Ministry of External Affairs or the GOSL facilitated the continuation of these ear-marked plans.
• Facilitating a delegation of 12 Travel Trade journalists from high profile journals to Sri Lanka in the next two months.
• Sri Lanka – Netherlands Mutual Heritage Centre. Presenting the Revitalization of the UNESCO Galle Dutch Fort in Sri Lanka. In partnership with the Embassy of the Netherlands.
• Readings from Neruda. Celebrating Neruda’s residence in Sri Lanka and poetry. In partnership with the Embassy of Chile.
• Apparel Organization of Sri Lanka to showcase their products with a fashion show
• Awareness program for journalists and diplomats on Heritage Tourism.
• Trade promotional presentation for the Indian business community highlighting trade opportunities (working lunch or dinner).
• Meeting with Presidents of private Universities promoting education investments in Sri Lanka.
• A proposal to establish a Sri Lankan Cultural Centre. This is to become a center of promotion and dissemination (information, library facility, talks, seminars, exhibitions). A place of congregation (performances, restaurant serving quality Sri Lankan cuisine).
• Interactive sessions between Sri Lanka and Indian artists presenting the performing arts, paintings, sculptured art to an audience of diplomats, media and academics In addition, eighty seven foreign missions accredited to Sri Lanka located in New Delhi is a huge asset and we planned on making use of their friendship and good will other than investments, education, sports and culture. A friendship circle with many of these missions was a designated plan on our part. We commenced discussions with the Ministry of Tourism of Sri Lanka to sponsor meetings of tour operator on a package we have titled Family Vacation Rendezvous in Sri Lanka for Diplomats. Several Diplomats showed keen interest over this possibility as Sri Lanka is the most favored vacation destination for India-based diplomats.
Areas of contradiction and resolve: value of a symbiotic relationship
We do have issues that need to be resolved with India. These cannot be swept under the carpet. India will I am sure has reevaluated what went wrong in imposing pressure from above and that the civil war was costly for both countries. Sri Lanka was partly responsible for the self perpetuation of the war until it was conclusively ended in 2009. The fishermen issue, energy policy, SAARC transportation action plan, Comprehensive economic policies, Sri Lanka’s right to cultivate and nurture international friends are some of these areas that need to be discussed with an understanding and respect for each other. India I am sure appreciates the importance of Sri Lanka’s security and neutrality. This is an asset to India’s security in addition to being a valued good neighbor. Our neutrality and shared policies tempered with impartiality will cushion stress and challenges confronting India that may emerge from areas beyond the SAARC and Indian Ocean Rim countries. Sadly, what was assigned to Sri Lanka as the IOR Heritage Centre in 2014 is yet to be activated.
I had consistently stressed the revitalization of the SAARC and also multiple initiatives with IOR counties. This is our front line defense safeguarding regional independence. The impeding UN Resolutions on Human Rights in the near future will be a testing ground the extent to which how Sri Lanka will respond and India will take a stand on external interference on Sri Lanka’s internal matters. This also has a direct relevance to India as to how external forces will evaluate India’s internal affairs when it suits them. Given Sri Lanka’s pivotal position in the Indian Ocean, we are destined to play a critical role as an economic and good will hub that will augur well for India. Our countries are at the threshold of a dramatically changing economic and social order and we need each other more than ever to face these situations without any inhibitions. Symbiosis, in the final analysis is inter-dependence treating each other with respect and affection and not based on a patron – client relationship. Our shared history holds some thing far more valuable and tangible for a sustainable relationship that is mutually beneficial.
Friends, India provided me with a heritage sanctuary and an Ashram of wisdom with a deep sense of affection. I crafted my thinking, social and intellectual engagements inspired by the gift of knowledge and humanism India’s history and culture ingrained within my own personality.
This was a gift I received from India as a Sri Lankan. This is also a symbiosis at its best!