It used to be said of Henry the 8th, the corpulent Tudor king of England, that he was singularly unfortunate in his relations with his wives. He had their heads, chopped off, one after another without saying “excuse me.”
The same can be said about the relations between big and small powers, for some reason, they rarely get on with one another, particularly if they happen to be neighbours. America rarely gets on even with its smaller neighbours, let alone some big ones like Mexico. Stalin got so fed up with his neighbours, nearly a dozen of them, that he annexed all of them, and had their governments packing. China is also in trouble with its neighbours, but we are now living in the 21st century and the days when you could settle problems by sending your army are over. You have to grin and bear it.
The only exception is India. We have never thrown our weight around and have always treated our neighbour with great respect, even under provocation. In fact, as in Sri Lanka, we went to the other extreme, and sent in our army to help them, not to fight them. And that cost us dearly.
It has been clear for years, long before the LTTE took to arms, that the Tamils in Sri Lanka were not happy with their lot in that country, although they constitute a big chunk of the population. Technically, the Tamils are full citizens of the country, and theoretically they have the same rights and privileges as the Sinhalese. But the Sinhalese are the dominant community and have not always treated the Tamils with respect.
This is how things soured and the Tamil anger burst into a full-scale insurgency. It has happened in other countries and it happened too in Sri Lanka. But nobody believed that the insurgency would last as many as nearly three decades, during which what began as minor skirmishes would blow up into a full-scale war.
The Sri Lankans have always resented India and Indians, for India is too big and too close for comfort. I had a Sinhalese roommate in London who was sitting for the Bar. I had no idea then what Bar meant but my friend rarely went to wherever he was supposed to go for his lessons, but always came home drunk. But that was not his fault; he had to take so many dinners for his Bar and in England dinners are never complete without drinks.
Sri Lankan students had more money to burn than Indian students. The Sinhalese who go abroad for studies belong to the landed aristocracy, with accounts in London banks and money on tap. We Indians led a hand to mouth existence and often starved. This is also a major difference between Indians and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. Indians are generally poor; the Sinhalese own land and most of the business and are well off. The fight therefore is as much between the rich and the poor as between one community and another.
Another thing I noticed was that Sri Lankans resent India, in the same way most countries resent America. My friend would suddenly get red in the face whenever the subject of India came up, and often left the room. His friends also did the same. Since the Sinhalese look more or less like Indians, they also resented the fact that they were mistaken for Indians. They rarely attended our functions, generally avoided Indian restaurants, unless, of course, they happened to be of Indian origin.
When two cultures clash, there is trouble, particularly if one culture is overpoweringly dominant in the region, as India certainly is. Actually, there is not much difference between Indian and Sinhalese cultures, just as there is not much difference between American and European cultures. Actually, the former is an offshoot of the latter, but go and tell Europeans that they are just like their American cousins. They think that you are insulting them.
I used to be a student in England immediately after the last world war. I was amazed at the antagonism towards America and things American, though it was the Americans who had saved Britain and helped win the war against Hitler.
Everything American was lampooned, including their food, their manners and, of course, their accents. Shopkeepers pretended they had no idea what their American customers were saying, though they had a sharp eye on their wallets bulging with crisp dollars. The Britishers had grasped that the war had played havoc with their place in the world, that they were no more the great imperial power they had been for nearly a century, and their days were over. It was not Britannia but America that ruled the waves, and the Britishers were no more in the picture.
I have never been to Sri Lanka and have no idea why things went suddenly out of control. Did the Tamils really think that they would be able to carve out a place for themselves, not just a place, but a whole nation, just because they were not able to get on with the Sinhalese? Such things happen only when some vested interests are involved. But none of the great powers were interested in splitting the country, as, for instance, in the case of India at the time of Partition. India was split not because the Muslims did not want to live together with Hindus—which may or may not be the case—but because the Britishers wanted the sub-continent split for their own strategic ends. There were no such factors in Sri Lanka.
I feel sorry for our Tamil brothers and sisters who have suffered so much in the war that ultimately brought them nothing and who now have to start their broken lives all over again, from scratch. The world is a very cruel place and man is a cruel animal. India should go all out and help the Tamils for no matter what nationality they belong to, they are our kith and kin, and our blood relations, for, there is such a thing as Indian blood, and it is that blood that binds us together, no matter where fate has taken us or may take us in future. Amen.