India should engage with Sri Lanka more, not alienate it

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New Delhi, March 22: Two regional parties from southern India continue to slam the Indian government over its handling of the Sri Lankan issue. New Delhi is found to be just reacting to the dictates but there is no assertion that it would stick to a consistent stand vis-a-vis the southern neighbour, which is a crucial one in terms of strategic security. It is just the ethnic consideration which has dominated the relation between the two countries and has started seriously affecting it.

International politics is not determined by the urge to get votes, unlike national politics. Populism doesn't work in that sphere hence. The only driving force in international relations is national interest and all country, irrespective of size and power, pursue it before anything else. The same holds true for India. Located in a volatile region in the world and surrounded by a number of small countries, the onus lies on India that it pursues a balanced foreign policy so that its strategic interest does not get defeated.

It is for this reason that India, despite being the world's largest democracy, did not always oppose authoritarian regimes for a status quo in its neighbourhood would have kept its interests protected.

In the past, India had backed the monarchies in Nepal and Bhutan, supported the dictatorial regime of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in Maldives, never opted to confront the military regime in Myamnar and also promoted goodwill with Pervez Musharraf's Pakistan. The Ershad regime of Bangladesh also had a good relation with New Delhi. None of the authorities in the neighbouring countries were known for democratic records.

Sri Lanka is more democratic compared to other neighbours of India and there is little surprise that India has never tried to corner another democratically elected government, no matter what happens.

Sri Lanka is a vital ally as far as India's strategic interest is concerned. The two nations share a historic bond and need to keep close to each other for mutual benefit. India is increasingly being encircled by the Chinese from Gwadar port in Pakistan to Maldives through the Indian Ocean and in this crucial power game, it is very important for New Delhi to ensure that Sri Lanka, strategically placed in the Indian Ocean, does not get away from its fold.

If indeed Colombo prefers Beijing over New Delhi, then India will be facing more problems in controlling the problems spilling over from Sri Lanka. The ethnic issue in the island-nation is getting increasingly internationalised and we all know how India got stuck in the Kashmir Valley once we took the matter to the international stage. It is very important that we don't create another stalemate situation in the south and allow more and more foreign voices asserting themselves.

The best India can do at the moment is to go back to its stand of not confronting the democratic rulers in Sri Lanka by backing resolutions that are being tabled every year at the UN just because of pressure from the regional outfits. Rather, the engagement should be more structurally balanced as India's stakes are the highest in the island nation.

If New Delhi targets Colombo more, there is little chance that the latter will reduce its atrocity and might even start retaliate at the Indian people living in its territory. The situation will go out of control in no time and the annoyed neighbours will start ganging-up against New Delhi with the backing of Pakistan. India has engaged itself in a quiet and constructive way in Afghanistan. Why can't the same approach be taken vis-a-vis Sri Lanka?

India had paid dearly in 1991 because of its flawed policy on Sri Lanka when its young leader Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. Another adventurism to meddle in the neighbour's affairs in the name of humanitarian intervention might satisfy the local sentiments, but the greater national interest of India will be severely dented, probably beyond repair.

New Delhi has been a steady ally of Sri Lanka in terms of granting material, humanitarian and financial aid but if it pursues a parallel policy of suspicion and condemnation, then all the softer approach to regain influence on Sri Lanka will fade away in no time.

Instead of a unilateral effort to make Sri Lanka address the issue of severe human rights violation, New Delhi should work in tandem with other powers who have been working towards a establishing peace in the war-ravaged country. It had missed a great opportunity to engage in the Sri Lankan issue constructively in 2002 when it refused to participate in the country's peace process initiated by Norway and supported by the USA.

Exerting a strategic influence takes time and can't be achieved overnight. Just look at China. How it has been filling up the strategic void which India is creating in its neighbourhood. But given India's proximity to Sri Lanka, it should have played a bigger role in Sri Lanka's life in the post-LTTE days.

One gets a feeling that our current treatment of Sri Lanka is shaped by a sense of superiority complex. Had Sri Lanka been a country as big as China or even Pakistan, one suspects India would have done little to criticise it. This approach is extremely flawed. We must respect a democracy and go through the proper channels to deal with it. This is 2013 and as we have grown in our stature in the last 50 years, so have others. Do we understand this simple logic?


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