The Modi Doctrine For Sri Lanka

By Dayan Jayatilleka  

Prime Minister Modi’s two day visit to Sri Lanka was supposed to be non-political. Yet, in his address to the International Vesak Conference at the BMICH, he laid out the Modi doctrine for Indo-Lankan relations and more especially for Sri Lanka.

His message was hardly non-political, or purely cultural and civilizational, being far more Kautilyan than Dharmaashokan. With the country’s top leadership– Government and Opposition– present, he prescribed the limits of this country’s sovereign existence.

This is what he says, on economics and security/strategy which are facets of the same thing: power relations between states:

  • I believe we are at a moment of great opportunity in our ties with Sri Lanka. An opportunity to achieve a quantum jump in our partnership across different fields…
  • We believe that free flow of trade, investments, technology, and ideas across our borders will be to our mutual benefit…
  • In infrastructure and connectivity, transport and energy, we are poised to scale up our cooperation.
  • Our development partnership stretches across nearly every sector of human activity such as agriculture, education, health, resettlement, transport, power, culture, water, shelter, sports, and human resources.”
  • , the economic and social wellbeing of the people of Sri Lanka is linked with that of 1.25 billion Indians.
  • whether it is on land or in the waters of the Indian Ocean, the security of our societies is indivisible.”

(‘Modi: Security of India and SL indivisible’, The Island, May 13th 2017, p1, lead story)

What is Prime Minister Modi telling us?

  1. There is going to be a qualitative leap in our relationship.
  2. This will be based on a free flow of trade, investment, technology and ideas across the border.
  3. In infrastructure, connectivity, transport and energy we are about to scale up our relations.
  4. Our partnership will stretch across almost every field of human activity, including agriculture, education, health, resettlement, transport, power, culture, water, shelter, sports, and human resources.

Whatever had been discussed before behind closed doors between Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and his Indian counterparts in Delhi, the shape of this ‘new partnership’ that was publicly laid out by Prime Minister Modi before the people of Sri Lanka, has to be evaluated against the complex relationship Sri Lanka has had thus far with India, whose territory includes Tamil Nadu which continues to be aggressively hostile to this country.

Who decided on the wisdom of  upgrading and up-scaling our economic relationship especially if it involves free flow across the borders when there have been numerous protests against ETCA in most sectors of the Sri Lankan economy? In many significant parts of the world, countries and peoples are turning away from such doctrines and practices of “free flow across borders”, because they adversely affect the nations concerned—including most famously Great Britain, with Brexit.

Especially worthy of note is the suggestion that the ‘up scaled’, ‘free’ ‘cross-border’ flow based relationship with the neighboring giant will involve “almost every sector of human activity”. If this is to be the case, does it not mean that every area of human activity of Sri Lanka’s citizens, of the inhabitants of this small island, will be impacted upon, penetrated, shaped and perhaps even controlled by the vastly more powerful neighbor? Such a suggestion had never been entertained in Sri Lanka in its centuries and millennia old history because it’s people and leaders wisely asked themselves: “What then will happen to us over decades? Who will we become?” Small it may be, but Sri Lanka has always valued and guarded its separate and distinct identity from its much bigger neighbor. Despite its size and location this island has always asserted its independent space to decide its own destiny, carefully calibrating its trading partnerships and cleverly balancing its relationships with the big powers globally, to its benefit, throughout the centuries.

It is doubtful if the Indian Prime Minister’s Vesak speech in Colombo would have been welcome in any country in the neighborhood of India. In a speech that accurately reflected the sentiments of the people of Sri Lanka, at a similar time of Indian efforts at a firmer footprint in Sri Lanka under a previous administration, a close friend and ally of India, Vijaya Kumaratunga, in his final speech (at Campbell park, early 1988) said that even if his head were to be blown to bits by the Green Tigers or the JVP he “would not permit Sri Lanka to be a playground of United States imperialism or the 26th state of India”. After a 30 year separatist war and increased hostility from Tamil Nadu, the people’s resolve to strengthen their independence has only become firmer. It is unlikely that they will let an opportunistic political class betray them.

The crux of the Modi doctrine is contained in just two sentences, bringing together the economic and the strategic, which is exactly what the people of Sri Lanka will be rightly apprehensive of:

“Because, the economic and social wellbeing of the people of Sri Lanka is linked with that of 1.25 billion Indians. Because, whether it is on land or in the waters of the Indian Ocean, the security of our societies is indivisible.”

Enlightened public opinion will see these as two bullets aimed at our sovereign, independent existence. Sri Lanka has never regarded its economic and social wellbeing as linked with that of 1.25 billion Indians. The Sri Lankan people are hardly likely to allow that to be the case.

We had an exemplary social welfare system which was upheld as a global model at one time. Later we opened up our economy, and that was one and a half decades before India did. We achieved higher growth, higher than India until recently. We have never regarded this country’s economic wellbeing as linked with the far more complex societies of federal India, with its uneven economic development and social issues of extreme poverty, overpopulation, entrenched caste consciousness –a form of social apartheid—and bride burning to name but a few of the pressing issues of social backwardness that India has to deal with.

If Prime Minister Modi had said ‘the neighborhood’, or ‘South Asia’ or better still, ‘Asia’ or ‘Eurasia’, the people of Sri Lanka would have understood the broad direction towards which the region and even the global economy is turning. But he just said “1.25 billion Indians”. This, will be unacceptable to the Lankan people as a destiny and livelihood that is to be yoked to the chariot wheel of India. This places Sri Lanka in danger of becoming a peripheral unit, a dependency, of the Indian economy. It will be seen as unwise by Sri Lankans to be dependent on the 1.25 billion Indians and be swallowed up by them.

As for security, no sovereign, independent country’s security can be “indivisible” from that of another. This is why we speak of “national interest” and “national security”. No country’s security can be indivisible from another when one country’s security can be  and has been threatened by the other; and the other contains a state unit of 80 million people, 18 miles away from the smaller country, which is hostile to the latter country.

According to Kautilya’s Arthashasthra, a state’s security is threatened precisely and inevitably by its neighbor—thereby rendering the security of a state eminently “divisible” rather than “indivisible” from the security of its neighbor!

Sri Lanka never considered its security indivisible from that of another country. Countries security interests may coincide, overlap—leading to varying degrees of cooperation, partnership and even alliance. But that is a sovereign decision of each country. No country can decree another country’s security and its own as indivisible. They are divisible precisely because they are two countries, two states, two sovereign and separate entities, with divisible borders and distinct destinies.

To consider Sri Lanka’s security as indivisible with India’s is well beyond the Indo-Lanka Accord and its annexures which recognized the geopolitical reality that given our asymmetries Sri Lanka must not and cannot do anything which will strategically harm or be hostile to our giant neighbor. The doctrine of the “indivisibility” of security however, goes way beyond this, to a level unaffordable and unacceptable to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has always retained its right to decide on its security partnerships to protect its territorial integrity. Any trans-border, trans-state, unilaterally defined and prescribed “indivisibility of security” is a restrictive concept which precludes it from considering its own national interests above all else.

The reference to the sea clearly means that India exercises a veto over the passage through/via Sri Lanka, of Chinese shipping i.e. the shipping vital to the wellbeing of China which unlike India has been a staunch friend of Sri Lanka and whose economic prosperity is vital to Sri Lanka and the rest of Asia not to mention the world. China is also the vital balancing factor that Sri Lanka has used to offset the hegemony of India and inter alia, Tamil Nadu. The Sri Lankan people are unlikely to allow their governments to concede their collective right to exercise that option.

This independence of spirit and the will of the proud people of Sri Lanka was reflected in the personalities like Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Ranasinghe Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali and even Anura Bandaranaike, not to mention Rohana Wijeweera, in their assertion of sovereignty in dealing with the rest of the world. While they– unlike the current political leaders, Government and Opposition– were made of sterner stuff, the people of Sri Lanka retain that spirit and remain vigilant,  as can be seen by the many professional associations, trade unions and individuals who have stepped up to fill the void.

No Indian leader or policy maker should rely on the whispered assurances of electorally vulnerable politicians desperately vying for perceived guarantees of continued political life and succession in a society which values and defends a thriving democracy. It is the ‘shaping spirit’, the ethos of this ancient island nation, which has asserted its independent identity and existence as distinct from and in contradistinction to the vast sub-continental mass, that will ultimately override all else, and prevail.

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