Editorial | Sunday Observer


India: more than a ‘good neighbour’

All societies have neighbours whether in the immediate vicinity or further away. That is the nature of human society – interaction and inter-dependency being crucial for any long term survival and well-being. And, the closer the neighbouring society the greater the socio-cultural affinity and intimacy.

Little Sri Lanka is lucky in that we have a large and well-resourced neighbouring state just 27 kilometres across the shallow Palk Strait.

That neighbour, India, has been a source of strength for us in times of trouble, the proximity enabling swift supportive responses by the Indians in emergency situations. Likewise, though, there have been times when inter-state rivalries and the external ramifications of domestic politics have turned that geographical proximity into a source of tension between the societies on both sides of the Strait.

Today, however, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime’s careful re-set of foreign policy has placed the country on a more rational, geo-politically balanced track, after a decade of ethno-centric posturing caused wild swings in relations between our country and the rest of the world. Indo-Sri Lanka relations are, once again, moving in a direction that will enable both countries to gain the maximum benefits of close bilateral co-operation.

Indo-Sri Lankan ties have now resumed an even keel so much so that the occasional domestic political shenanigans on either side are no longer a serious cause of misunderstanding (as we saw earlier last week). After decades of multiple insurgencies and their impact on bilateral ties, today, given this government’s business-like approach to international relations, the extent of bilateral benefits only depends on how quickly and smoothly the various strands of co-operation are strengthened.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had formal meetings with Indian President Ram Nath Kovind, and, discussions with senior Indian government ministers and Opposition leaders. He met Indian Premier Narendra Modi and held a serious summit meeting yesterday.

At stake is a gamut of issues mostly of positive import like a free trade and transport regime, tourism, investments in industry and infrastructure development and, other economic interactions like the rational sharing of valued human resources on both sides of the Strait.

Also at stake are deliberations over knotty issues that are always there in some form or another when it comes to close neighbours who are also close cultural ‘kin’ with attendant familial dynamics. After all, our nearest neighbour is, by the very geographical proximity, also our socio-cultural cousin.

Not only are the human populations on both sides of the Strait, of the same stock, but some of our most cherished traditions and civilizational riches are the result of cross-fertilisation across ‘Adam’s Bridge’. Our greatest spiritual treasure, Buddhism, found a solid footing here thanks to the cordiality of ancient Indian imperial power. Likewise, ethnic Tamils on the island have ethnic ties with Tamil Nadu. Ethnic Sinhala cultural traits have affinities with Kerala as do our Muslims.

Once a rational approach – free of pseudo-nationalism – is adopted for bilateral dealings, the doors of mutual prosperity are wide open. The opportunities provided by one of the world’s single biggest markets and emerging techno-industrial centres just 27 km away are so great that only the fanatically irrational or deviously populist will miss the wood for the trees.

It is up to Sri Lanka to be wary of the pitfalls of inter-state economic rivalry and political manoeuvre in building Indo-Sri Lankan co-operation. The common cultural discourses and mindsets will surely enable us to forge ahead with careful navigation.

Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean is our strength in dealing with our large neighbour. As long as India is sensitive to the importance of good relations with its immediate neighbourhood, it can share in the advantages that such a geo-strategic positioning provides. Only short-sighted domestic political manoeuvring and unrealistic ethno-centrism and hegemonism on either side of the Strait will constrain our mutually beneficial relations.


Vijayakala: the measure of intemperate speech

Parliamentarian Vijayakala Maheswaran faces prosecution in the coming weeks for her intemperate public remarks made earlier this year. Speaking at a well-attended public rally in Jaffna in July this year, Ms Maheswaran was reported to have expressed a wish for a return to the social policing of the LTTE as a means of combating the incidence of crime in the Peninsula.

Certainly, given the experience of the extreme violence, disruption and political crisis engendered by the LTTE’s insurgency, the law and order authorities as well as the general public may react with alarm at this seeming nostalgia for the LTTE. A decades-long ferocious insurgency that threatened to break up the Sri Lankan state and certainly did splinter the national social cohesion cannot be pushed into the past easily. Neither can the state ignore even the minutest tendency to return to such large scale mayhem.

At the same time, the very crises we have suffered has created traumas and psychologies among us that do not easily fade away either. Caught in that vortex of past trauma (her husband was assassinated during the war), current social exigencies of crime in her political constituency, and, reacting immediately to a recent murder of a girl-child, Ms. Vijayakala perhaps lost control of both her emotions and her style of political speaking during that speech.

The courts will now decide whether the young Parliamentarian, who has braved much in her politics with one of the two major national parties (rather than an ethnic based party), was merely being rhetorically intemperate or, whether she was seriously and deliberately attempting to sow ‘disaffection’.

The challenge is to carefully ensure the widest scope for free expression while guarding against the revival of old evils.