Strengthening the path of friendship
India and Sri Lanka reiterated their deep ties at the recently-held virtual summit between the Prime Ministers of both the countries. On this occasion, ex-diplomat Gopalkrishna Gandhi recalls the initiatives spearheaded by former External Affairs Minister, the late Jaswant Singh, and their current implications on the relations between the two neighbouring nations
Sri Lanka was in a grim situation throughout the 1990s. By 2000, the then President of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, was facing formidable challenges – militarily, politically, and personally. The separatist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was intractable, volatile, and capable of doing its worst. India was observing the volatile situation, with its experience of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF, which was involved in peacekeeping in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1990), and the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi branded into its psyche. Suggestions were not lacking for an “armed intervention”.
In a speech made from, Kelang, Himachal Pradesh, the then Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, dismissed these ideas and said, in his lilting Hindi: “Hum Lanka ki madad karne ko tayyar hein. Lekin Lanka ko bhi apni niti, apne nivasiyon ke bare mein, Tamil vasiyon ke bare mein, badalni chahiye. Is sambandh mein Lanka se batchit ho rahi hai. Aur hum samajhte hein ki koyi rasta niklega. (We are ready to help [Sri] Lanka. But Lanka also has to make changes in its policy, about its residents, and Tamil citizens. We are in dialogue with Lanka on this. And it is our understanding that some way out will emerge).”
Jaswant Singh was the External Affairs Minister (EAM), Government of India, when in August of 2000, I was appointed the Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka. I called on EAM Singh. He had returned only the previous night from a visit to Sri Lanka, and so he spoke to me from that fresh experience of the situation there. His was an unusual voice. Strong, deep and with a tremor — he sounded as if his thoughts were passing through a sieve of reasoning, controlled emotion and studied courtesy. He said, “Chandrika is a woman of courage. She has lost her husband, suffered an attack on her person, and seen a military reverse. Yet she stands firm. She said to her demoralised Army chiefs, ‘we must fight back’. She means to do that.” Then, moving seamlessly from English to Avadhi, he quoted Tulsidas from Aranya Kanda (a chapter) of the epic poem Ramacharitmanas: “dhiraj, dharma, mitra aru nari, apad kala parakhiye chari. (Fortitude, righteousness, friends and womankind are tested in a crisis)”.
I asked if there was any chance that the LTTE would be receptive to proposals short of Eelam. “None”, he said. “For Prabhakaran [LTTE chief], a solution is not the solution. For him a perennial confrontation is what is needed. He has to keep the conflict going in order to survive.” He added, “But the effort [to find a solution] must continue. [We must] encourage the devising of a formula that will gain a wide measure of acceptance.”
Enlarging his reflection beyond the crucial Tamil question, he said, “We should not pivot our Mission and our representation on Jaffna, the Tamils and the LTTE. There is so much between us and Sri Lanka. There is the Buddha. There are cultural links with Odisha, Andhra [Pradesh], and Kerala.” Adding, with a passing gleam in his eye, something I never forgot throughout my tenure in Colombo; “We should bring back some laughter and joy in our Mission there. There is too much gloom.”
“Charles Lamb, it is said,” I responded, “laughed in order not to weep”.
“Not that laughter,” Jaswant Singh explained, “but the laughter that complements the serious side.”
The EAM gave me, in under 20 minutes, a sensitive perspective on the fraught island state, the wholly legitimate aspirations of its Tamil population, the efforts of their democratic leaders to engage in political dialogue for an ‘Eelam minus’ solution in which real and satisfying devolution of powers could take place in the letter and spirit of federalism, giving the island’s north and east a sense of their common identity and destiny, the Chandrika government’s efforts at forging consensus with the Sri Lankan opposition, and all this in the face of the relentless and dangerous obduracy of the LTTE. Jaswant Singh’s watch over the situation in Sri Lanka remained intense alongside his massive preoccupations with India’s two other neighbours – Pakistan and China – and the in-depth and intricate conversations he was conducting with USA.
The years of terrorist frenzy are behind Sri Lanka now. In September 2020, as Jaswant Singh’s six-year battle on life’s horizon neared its end, a virtual bilateral summit was held between the two neighbours, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sri Lanka’s PM Mahinda Rajapaksa discussing a wide range of topics. It was PM Modi’s first such virtual bilateral engagement with a leader of a neighbouring country. For Prime Minister Rajapaksa, it was the first diplomatic engagement with a leader of a foreign country after he was sworn in as PM for the fourth time in August, 2020. PM Modi emphasised India’s priority to its relations with Sri Lanka, as he mentioned his government’s neighbourhood-first policy as well as SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) doctrine. The Indian Prime Minister announced a grant of USD 15 million for the promotion of Buddhist ties between India and Sri Lanka. PM Modi urged the Government of Sri Lanka to address the aspirations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace and respect within a united Sri Lanka, including by carrying forward the process of reconciliation with the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka.
The agreements reached by the two leaders bore out Jaswant Singh’s vision. Calling on the new government in Sri Lanka “to work towards realising the expectations of Tamils for equality, justice, peace and dignity within a united Sri Lanka” was exactly what Jaswant Singh would have wanted to see and hear. He would have been particularly pleased by India’s announcement of the grant to strengthen our Buddhist ties.
The Modi-Rajapaksa agreement is organically connected to the approach that former Prime Minister Vajpayee had spelt out in Kelang and Jaswant Singh had reiterated to me 20 years ago. A policy that India has always followed towards Sri Lanka, that of the “mitra” (friend) Tulsidas speaks of, which Jaswant Singh had quoted to me years ago.