'India will only alienate Lanka if it tries to coerce it'

The Tamil issue has resurfaced recently affecting both India's domestic politics and foreign policy priorities. While there are calls to boycott Sri Lanka for overlooking Tamil sentiments, other quarters believe such measures would only affect India's foreign relations with the island state ruled by a powerful President. OneIndia News speaks to retired Military Intelligence officer of the Indian Army, Col R Hariharan on the issue.

Col R Hariharan served as a MI specialist on Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka as well as terrorism and counter-insurgency for nearly three decades. His operational experience includes India-Pakistan wars in Kutch (1965) and East Pakistan in 1971 (now Bangladesh) and counter insurgency operations in North Eastern States, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. He was awarded the Visisht Sewa Medal (VSM) for his service as the Head of Intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka (1987-90).


Col Hariharan writes and gives commentary on national security issues in national and international print and electronic media. He is currently associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the Delhi-based intelligence think tank South Asia Analysis Group.

Here is the full interview:

OneIndia: We are seeing protest in the Indian media about the Sri Lankan government's atrocities against the Tamils there. Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalithaa took a retaliatory stance against the island nation by driving out football teams and pilgrims.

There is a call for boycotting Sri Lanka from certain sections. India-Sri Lanka relations are not simplistic for besides the ethnic sentiments, a crucial strategic significance is also attached to them. Leaders like Jayalalithaa are actually endangering India's bilateral engagements with Sri Lanka in the name of 'shielding' ethnic nationalism.

If we turn belligerent towards them and do not show interest in a peace process, the Lankans can retaliate in their country against Indian sentiments as well. Do you think such coercive diplomacy will do India any favour? What is your take on this?

Col Hariharan: Your have raised four separate but inter-related issues in your question. My views on these issues including 'coercive diplomacy' (an oxymoron as diplomacy means skill and tact in dealing with people) are:

First, regarding Ms Jayalalithaa's recent action in sending back Sri Lankan football teams and pilgrims, she has now clarified that it was a symbolic act to register her protest against the continued aberrations in Sri Lanka's handling of Tamils. Sri Lankan pilgrims and others are welcome to visit Tamil Nadu, she has added wisely as a lakh of people come to Chennai from Sri Lanka.

Second, her call to boycott trade with Sri Lanka comes at a time when Indo-Sri Lanka trade is flourishing; it's worth nearly four billion dollars now. Tamil Nadu has a lion's share of this trade. With global economic downturn shrinking trading volumes, it would be unwise to ban on trade with Sri Lanka. The chief minister's statement was probably a political rhetoric to upstage her rival M Karunanidhi, leader of the DMK, from exploiting the Sri Lanka Tamil issue. Of course, she is genuinely concerned about the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils.

Third, issues of Centre-state relationship are also behind Tamil Nadu's assertive call for New Delhi to act on what you call 'ethnic nationalism'. The chief minister's insistence on New Delhi to take serious notice of her concerns is her way of asserting her national presence. Other regional satraps like Ms Mamata Banerjee and Mulayam Singh are also doing the same. Comments on foreign policy issues by them does not mean belligerence. It is only a call for New Delhi to consider the state's sensitivities in policy making. We can expect more such calls from regional leaders in the coming years as national parties need them to form a coalition government at the Centre.

Fourth, coercive diplomacy. The era of coercive diplomacy is over. The US, with all its might, has not been able to force a regime change in Syria. So there is no question of India forcing Sri Lanka to act according to its will. Cooperation, coordination and concern for each other with some carrots and a little stick can produce results in international relations.

India already enjoys enormous influence in shaping Sri Lanka's policy with its international status, and economic, cultural, religious and strategic clout. If we use this clout to 'coerce' a proud nation like Sri Lanka, we will only alienate it.

OneIndia: On the strategic significance issue, China has been showing a big interest in Sri Lanka. Some say, by getting closer to smaller countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, Beijing is trying to contain and corner India in South Asia.

If China really sustains a long-term alliance with Sri Lanka, more due to the fact that New Delhi failed to capitalise on its historic linkage with the close southern neighbour, then will the strategic Indian Ocean zone turn into a perennial headache for India? For if China establishes itself strongly in this region, the US will not let itself fall behind. Doesn't India need to play the role of a balancer in terms of international (political and economic) relations?

Col Hariharan: I am not very clear on what you mean when you speak of "India playing the role of a 'balancer' in terms of international political and economic relations." I presume you want to know how India should evolve its economic and political relations with Sri Lanka to counter China's efforts to establish a long term alliance (?) with Sri Lanka.

China has not established any short or long term alliance with any of the countries you have mentioned. Pakistan is the only country in South Asia having such an alliance with China. When we discuss China's entry in South Asia, we must recognise a few things. China has become a global economic power; PLA modernisation is well underway to safeguard China's global interests; it has become global manufacturing hub and in the bargain become the world's largest consumer of resources and it will not hesitate to use its economic and military clout to achieve its strategic aims.

Global economic downturn has affected China's growth rate and it is now eyeing the huge untapped South Asian markets and natural resources. China knows that in South Asia, India is the dominant power and has geographic, historical and cultural advantages that China does not possess. China also knows that India would not give a free run for Chinese to thrive in South Asia at its cost. India would leverage its advantages to tackle China's entry into South Asia.

Considering this, both China and India would use mix of economic and strategic power play to tackle each other as the two nations are too big to go for all out war. Just as China cannot wish away India, India also cannot stop China's forays in South Asia.

India has to adopt a holistic strategy combining its advantages to ensure China's growth is kept within manageable proportions. We should also note China has emerged as India's No. 1 trading partner and it will have its own impact on the policy perceptions in both nations. So how can we ask our neighbours to ignore China? It is not realistic.

As regards the Indian Ocean region, as China's defence minister Liang Guanglei who visited Sri Lanka and India recently noted Indian navy is the dominant player. So it will take some time for Chinese naval power to flex its muscles in Indian Ocean. This is inevitable and we should be mentally and physically be prepared and take suitable counter measures.

Please Wait while comments are loading...