M.L. Sondhi

The Pioneer, March 27, 1992

It is heartening to note that both Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and President Premadasa have heightened pragmatism in their policy-making and both are pursuing unambiguously non-provocative postures. I the political arenas of New Delhi and in Colombo there are today parallel interests which can help defuse existing tensions and promote political understanding which can help redress minority grievances in Sri Lanka, reduce and contain separatist violence and enhance economic cooperation between India and Sri Lanka.

A recent visit to Colombo during which this author had the opportunity to interact with academicians, diplomats and media persons, provided indications of deep changes in expectations and attitudes which if recognised in New Delhi, could help Mr. Narasimha Rao show the way forward through a change-oriented process in foreign policy and security issues. Careful consideration should be given to personal diplomacy at the summit level which can enhance the image of Indian pragmatism, and provide a stimulus to the development of genuine interdependence in South Asia in general and in Indo-Sri Lanka relations in particulars.

The Premadasa government has started thinking of significant changes which can be described as a humanitarian breakthrough to a peace process. It is worthwhile to recall a specific commitment by the Sri Lankan President in which he reiterated the need to consolidate the growing ethnic harmony in Sri Lanka and described any obstruct6ions to this process as an “unpardonable treachery”. Colombo has also affected improvements in its procedural techniques to advance dialogue among the Tamils and the Sinhalese and Mr. Premadasa himself has in his tours throughout the countryside tried to drive the message home that functional cooperation in economic and social areas is the key to the process of rapprochement.

In the new context, Indian diplomacy cannot be the same as during the Rajiv period. New Delhi has a begun a fundamental re-evaluation of what is required to check militant groups which have in the past been able to operate from Indian soil with liberal supply of arms and funds. The trauma of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi has de-legitimised the infrastructure of the militants and has made it possible for New Delhi and Colombo to avoid both accidents and inadvertent escalation through careful diplomatic signalling. All the current indications are that the cooperation between the governments of India and Sri Lanka on the return of displaced Sri Lankan Tamils to the areas which have been freed of the LTTE has created a business-like sense of common security, albeit as a minimalist policy.

What are the possibilities and the limits for India-Sri Lanka security cooperation to expand? There are several constraints. The first is the inertia of existing Indian policies which have been evolved by paramilitary and intelligence organisations. These can only be seriously modified on personal directions from the Prime Minister. The second and possibly the most important is the influence of Tamil Nadu politics on the India-Sri Lanka agenda.

In an atmosphere of consensus and centre-state stability, Chief Minister Jayalalitha and Prime Minister Narasimha Rao could avoid views which are short-sighted and ensure that old categories which were dominant before the Rajiv assassination now become irrelevant. Third, there are also difficulties at the centre in New Delhi which would arise from certain Opposition parties which would express disagreement over the appropriate diplomatic strategy.

How is it possible to create an appropriate psychological climate for building a close relationship with Sri Lanka? A single gesture by Mr. Narasimha Rao like the donation of a relic of Lord Buddha to Sri Lanka would be an important element in building South Asian architecture on the principle of consensus and expansion of people to people contacts. India should encourage a planned exchange of specialists both at the official and non-official level on the subject of terrorism. The time is also ripe for creating a India-Sri Lankan fabric of confidential relations on tackling the linkage between drugs and terrorism.

Another significant aspect of the Premadasa government’s programme is the policy of openness to human rights bodies and its encouragement to offers of mediation. If Mr. Narasimha Rao were to avoid certain characteristics of the big brother attitude fostered by previous Indian governments, h is summit diplomacy could serve as an instrument in the search for new elements of political culture in achieving peaceful change and common security in our region. India should encourage all Tamil groups to engage in dialogue with Colombo and also stress the objective factors in favour of redressal of the grievances of the Tamil community on the basis of the neighbourly coexistence of the two countries.

While supporting the All Party Conference and the Special parliamentary Select Committee in their problem-solving efforts, India could refer to the example of the CSCE process in Europe which achieved a benign quality on account of the verification mechanism in the sphere of human dimensions.

The time is ripe to dismantle threat images in Indo-Sri Lankan relations and Mr. Rao who has adopted cooperative norms and expectations in domestic politics would do well to accept the primacy of the common good in India’s relations with its southern neighbour. By starting an early dialogue both Mr. Rao and President Premadasa can win a lot of political credit for themselves and also show South Asia the way to combat the scourge of terrorism.
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