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Sri Lanka, India need each other in a changing Economic and Social Order
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Sudharshan Seneviratne | Date:08 Jul , 2016 0 Comments
Sudharshan Seneviratne
is former Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India who will soon take up his new assignment as Hubert Humphrey Distinguished Professor in the US. The article is excerpted from his speech that was delivered at the India-Sri Lanka Relations in the 21st Century seminar. BCIS. Colombo, 16 th June 2016. He can be reached at:

Strung in association that has multiple dimensions, the ties between India and Sri Lanka are not only based on the goods that are traded, or even the strategic convergences they enjoy; the ties between these two countries are also a matter of perception. Confronted with many issues, yet heading strong, the intensifying alliance between India and Sri Lanka needs to be understood as a ‘symbiosis’; one that needs re-imagination of India in the Sri Lankan foreign policy. 

Imaging India could have multiple views. It is a landmass centrally located and representing multi forms of diversity ranging from bio diversity to cultural, economic, demographic, resources, religious, language variants to name a few. India is also a country with many histories extending from the pre-historic to the contemporary period. Such variations are embedded in each of the States in post Colonial India.  In reality these States represent different countries within the Union of India. Thus, to Sri Lanka, India presents several personalities images, identities, attitudes and responses.

Those who deal with India in Sri Lanka, especially in the spheres of diplomacy and politics, need to understand this ground reality. India is not New Delhi. It largely rests within the States and beyond the English speaking minority elite of New Delhi. Especially the Ministry of External Affairs in Sri Lanka must visualize and touch India beyond the pale of cocktail circuit and a majority of Delhi-based Think Tank – NGO “experts”. Those in dialogue with India need to be familiar with India’s history, languages, culture, sentiments of the common people and all those who in reality represent the personality and aspirations of India beyond the metropolis. Or else, to us, India will always remain an illusion and we will constantly be confronted with defeatist and half backed policies in our interactions with India.

India is Sri Lanka’s nearest neighbour. Sri Lanka needs to recognize the global realities and the challenges facing India and conversely, its response to this situation by an internal restructuring of the political-economy and administrative readjustment. The changing social landscape of India under Narendra Modi and its ideology of a new political and economic power strategy were presented under the title, ‘Make In India’.

There are two ways in which the Indo-Sri Lankan ties need to be re-imagined: horizontal and vertical. The horizontal dynamic represents India’s security concern and good-will. The PM unfolded this vision commencing the very day he took over office and met with the SAARC political leadership. In his agenda, PM Modi placed South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and Indian Ocean on track as an integral reality and security imperative. He has gauged the value and strength of shared culture within the SAARC region and the potential offered by the region as India’s safety valve while Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) is losing its relevance in the new global order and hegemonic realignments. India will remember these sentiments and the neighbourhood will hold India to its word. PM Modi has taken the long view of history and cemented the synergy of tradition and modernity.

Now that the wheels are set in motion, this philosophy, ideology and action plan encompassing India will continue to persist due to internal and global imperatives and realities – even if there is a regime change. It is with that reality in mind that we need to strategize and prioritize Sri Lanka’s role on a canvass of realpolitik. Consequently, cumulative impact of India’s new reality needs to be viewed and measured against Sri Lanka’s own national interests and planning and so as to establish a balanced dialogue with a friendly India and maintain good neighborly relationships while securing our sovereignty, national integrity and self respect.

In the eyes of the present regime in Sri Lanka, there is a bias towards lending priority to Economic Diplomacy (ED) with a focus on promoting trade, encouraging growth, attracting investment and in general supporting business. ED cannot function on a stand-alone policy. On the contrary, it is more fruitful to situate ourselves within a multi-track strategy having a holistic approach in time and space.

In view of this, Sri Lanka needs to strategize and place on track an India Policy. It needs to fathom India’s overarching physical scale; its ability to mobilize resources, wield striking power and capacity to dominate; our proximity of location to India; shared socio-cultural connectivity; economic synergy; India as one of the fastest growing economies of the world.

Sri Lanka needs to engage India on a one on basis with pro-active strategies and with an open mind. It needs to think big never under estimate our own strengths, though small in scale never with a dependent psyche. It is here that Sri Lanka should redefine ED and to recognize an inclusive and dual strategy as horizontal and vertical.

The vertical is identified with the metropolitan hubs but limited in range. Horizontal strategy is one of Out of New Delhi and metropolitan hubs representing – connectivity with the individual states in India. This essentially calls for ED to be based on a dialectical relationship and interactive process where economic factors alone cannot function on a stand-alone basis. Most certainly there is a need to keep tabs on the metropolitan centre but there is a greater India we need to recognize and cultivate. This means to move beyond the metropolitan hubs. In other words this is a valued “people to people connectivity”.

Sri Lanka does have issues that need to be resolved with India. These cannot be swept under the carpet. India will, it is believed, will reflect on what went wrong in imposing pressure from above and that the civil war was costly for both countries. Sri Lanka was partly responsible for the self perpetuation of the war until it was conclusively ended in 2009. The fishermen issue, energy policy, SAARC transportation action plan, Comprehensive economic policies, Sri Lanka’s right to cultivate and nurture international friends are some of these areas that need to be discussed with an understanding and respect for each other. India I am sure appreciates the importance of Sri Lanka’s security and neutrality.  This is an asset to India’s security in addition to being a valued good neighbor.  Our neutrality and shared policies tempered with impartiality will cushion stress and challenges confronting India that may emerge from areas beyond the SAARC and Indian Ocean Rim countries. Sadly, what was assigned to Sri Lanka as the IOR Heritage Centre in 2014 is yet to be activated.

Given Sri Lanka’s pivotal position in the Indian Ocean, it is destined to play a critical role as an economic and goodwill hub that will augur well for India.  Both these countries are at the threshold of a dramatically changing economic and social order and both need each other more than ever to face these situations without any inhibitions. Symbiosis, in the final analysis, is inter-dependence, treating each other with respect and affection and not based on a patron–client relationship. Their shared history holds something far more valuable and tangible for a sustainable relationship that is mutually beneficial.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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