Delhi’s southward pivot | Sunday Observer

Delhi’s southward pivot

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flying visit to Colombo today may be the continuation of age-old South Asian geopolitical ritual, but the prioritization of The Maldives and Sri Lanka as his first foreign destinations after re-election to power may signify a new emphasis on the Indian Ocean and new maritime horizons for Delhi.

Ever the pragmatist – unlike some of his culturally militant (and deviant) vote banks – Mr. Modi is known not to prevaricate when it comes to decisive action. His prompt acceptance of President Maithripala Sirisena’s invitation to visit indicated New Delhi’s increasing sensitivity to life south of the Palk Strait in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bomb attacks barely six weeks ago.

Pre-occupied as it was with perceived geo-strategic pressures to its north and north-west, Delhi has only recently realised its vulnerability on its southward maritime margins. India, as the regional big power, perceives new geopolitical pressures as coming from both the eastern and western ends of the Indian Ocean Region.

The Islamist terror attack on Mumbai in 2008 first alerted Delhi to its maritime vulnerability. This year’s Easter Sunday terror strike in Sri Lanka that seemingly benefited from links with elements in South India has driven home to Delhi its vulnerability to clandestine off-shore threats that could utilise the proximity of neighbouring Sri Lanka and The Maldives. Just as much as Sri Lankan Thamil separatist militants benefitted from base areas in southern India, Delhi is acutely aware that the reverse is also possible.

Prime Minister Modi is likely to broach these new sensitivities with the Sri Lankan leadership here. After all, it was Delhi that was first aware of the National Thawheed Jama’ath operation and attempted to alert the Sri Lankan authorities well in advance. Thus, it is in the interest of all states and societies in South Asia to collaborate closely in order that this phenomenon of cross-border terror combined with destabilising ethnic geopolitics is contained and eliminated.

In both India and Sri Lanka, mainstream politicians are yet to sufficiently acknowledge that domestic politics, especially inter-ethnic hostilities, are a key driver in this tendency toward religion-inspired insurgency and social tensions.

At the same time, Premier Modi will also want to discuss the possibilities of re-vitalising Indo-Lanka trade and investment ties. There are several major Indian projects here that are not moving forward due to various reasons – bureaucratic obstinacy, ecological impacts, project tender arithmetic. It is to be hoped that Premier Modi will move to quickly cut through ‘red-tape’ in bilateral interactions to enable the building up of Indo-Srilanka economic relations to greater heights.

Sri Lankans, too, must appreciate that geopolitical proximity can be mutually beneficial just as much as it can be misinterpreted and used to fuel domestic politics and communal passions. It is to be hoped that both Colombo and Delhi will proceed with a pragmatism and political will that overcomes the barriers of obscurantist xenophobia.

Let’s not kill the messenger

The spate of hate speech that has come to characterise outbursts of inter-ethnic hostilities and xenophobic hysteria is a new, 21stCentury phenomenon that has come with the mind-boggling capacities of amazing new technologies. If the mass communication industry of the 19th and 20th Centuries enabled distribution of messaging and propaganda on a scale of thousands and then millions, there were still some constraints in terms of centralised distributive systems and the need for heavy investments.

The new digital technology, however, has broken all these barriers. On the one hand, cyber communication enables the Small Person do today what only Big Media could do till the final decades of the 20th Century. At one time only governments, organised religion and, big media conglomerates could reach large numbers of people – whole populations - in their communications.

Now, equipped with the smart phone and numerous internet-based social media platforms on the one hand and the instant access to Web knowledge and digitised data on the other, the ordinary citizen also has the power to communicate on a large scale.

However, it is this same massive communications and knowledge distribution capacity that now enable communications with deadly content and intent also to reach entire populations. It also enables miscreants and anti-social agitators to communicate instantly and plot and execute swiftly and devastatingly. Worse, the new technology is being abused by conventional media practitioners to disseminate false and socially provocative information on a scale that is downright dangerous.

Even if excuses are trotted out that the intention is to ‘generate public debate’, what is being actually generated is social conflict and not intelligent discourse.

The challenge facing governments and social managers is to blunt the antics of the evil-doers without crushing or constraining the wonderful energies being released by the new media. There need to be caution when attempting simply to resort to strengthening laws to combat hate speech and disinformation. This nation has long experienced the use of such legal constraints merely to throttle democratic and rational discourses rather than stump racism.

The Government will do well to proceed cautiously in a manner that meticulously protects the new communicational power of civil society while, at the same time, contains the ferocious mouthings of the uncivilised.