The most cursory of glances at a world atlas would showcase the importance of Sri Lanka in any strategy involving the Indian Ocean. The island nation is located at a point that is core to India’s interests in the eastern half of the Indo-Pacific, that vast body of water which has become the most important geopolitical zone of the 21st century. As significant is the fact that Sri Lanka has protected Buddhist heritage with a devotion that has remained constant across centuries, so much so that the island is home to a powerful strand of a faith that has a rising number of adherents across the globe. Within the neighbourhood of India, another important nation, Myanmar, shares with Sri Lanka the quality of being majority Buddhist, while to the north, in China, the faith is spreading faster than any other in a country hungry for spiritual riches after having won so much of the material variety. Add to this the northeast of India, to the ancient kingdom of Thailand, where too Buddhism is the dominant faith, and farther north in the same direction, to Japan, where local versions of the faith have a huge number of adherents, and it is a surprise why more attention has not been paid by previous Prime Ministers towards ensuring adequate geopolitical leverage accruing from the fact that the home of Siddhartha Gautama, Lord Buddha, is India. In the case of Sri Lanka, the policy of previous governments (with the exception of Rajiv Gandhi) was centred around the north of the country, on issues dealing with the Tamil minority, which overall did not always enjoy the warmest of relations with the Sinhala Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka. The US made the mistake in Iraq of basing its policy towards that country mainly on protecting the interests of the Sunni minority, and in particular sought to win back for the Sunnis much of the disproportionate claims that they had on the country’s resources during the time when Saddam Hussein was the dictator of Iraq. In like fashion, successive governments in India paid much more attention to the actual or perceived grievances of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka than on other matters, so much so that overall the relationship between Delhi and Colombo was often marked by an acrimony that led to other powers securing a bridgehead within the strategic space of that country.
Ultimately, the road to harmony in South Asia will need to include the setting up of a visa-free South Asia federation, where each country would retain its full sovereignty but work in sync with other members within such a zone. Such an alliance would have a common currency chosen from within its members, and the group would include Afghanistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and eventually Pakistan, once that country rids itself of the obsession that it is a fusion which is part-Arab and part-Turkoman rather than what it actually is, which is South Asian through and through. As a first step towards such a collaborative objective, India will need to work towards visa free entry and an effective common currency with other South Asian countries in the same way as it has with Nepal. Should the Indian economy break past the double digit growth barrier, such a breakthrough would be easier, as it would then be obvious that the flow of people into India as a consequence of the doing away with visas would be more than that from India to the other country. Indeed, such is already the case with Nepal, with many more from that country relocating to India than the other way about. Whether it be Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or other countries within South Asia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown a sensitivity towards their concerns and a refusal to act the Big Brother role that has coloured some initiatives in the past. Hopefully, now that he has once again visited Sri Lanka, the Prime Minister will soon go to Myanmar, a Buddhist country that has received far less attention from South Block in the past than it has merited.
It is not the business of any country to take sides in a political slugfest in another, unless there be extraordinary circumstances, and it is both noteworthy and welcome that Modi immediately made time in his schedule to meet Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former President of Sri Lanka, who was defeated at the polls largely because of the perception that too many of his family members were getting placed into key slots in government. Despite this, Rajapaksa retains a formidable support base within Sri Lanka, and is very familiar with India. While some such as his brother Basil may have closer with countries other than India, especially with China, both Mahinda as well as his brother Gotabaya (who were together responsible for the elimination of the LTTE almost a decade ago from Sri Lanka) have several friends in India and may be expected to prioritise ties with Delhi in the event they are returned to power, which is not impossible in the dust and swirl of democratic politics. Modi’s going to Kandy for one of the most important Buddhist festivals on the planet was timely, and needs to be supplemented not only by a more vigorous approach towards Sri Lanka but by focussing on the two other Buddhist nations in our vicinity, Thailand and Myanmar. Prime Minister Modi has placed equal if not greater emphasis on cultural as on traditional matters of statecraft while dealing with other countries, and this has been in evidence in the manner in which the Prime Minister’s reverence for the traditions of the Buddha and the way these have been preserved in Sri Lanka were clear from his interactions. Reconnecting with Colombo on the basis of the civilisational roots shared by both countries has been a welcome step, which hopefully will get followed by several more that would ensure a more harmonious relationship between India and Sri Lanka than has been the case far too often in the past.