For anyone—least of all Tamilians—to argue in India that Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh should not attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHGM) in Colombo is to show poor sense of political responsibility. This must be particularly impressed upon Tamil Nadu leadership – all of them, to whichever party they belong.
In the first place the meeting was called by the Commonwealth office, not by Sri Lanka. In the second place India is a senior member of the Commonwealth and must behave like one. In the third place, let us go back to history for a while. In pre-Independent days, it was the Tamil aristocracy that ruled the roost in Sri Lanka, leaving the 70 per cent Theravadi Buddhist who were in the majority to their fate. When Sri Lanka got its independence and the majority came into its won, it sought to exercise its natural rights with a vengeance. Reacting strongly to it, the Tamilians sought to be assertive to the point of wishing to partition the country through arms.
Throughout the seventies, private parties and elements in the State Government of Tamil Nadu were believed to be supporting the armed rebellion undertaken by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). India could hardly accept that and had necessarily to support the Sri Lankan Government, which had its own defects. For that India had to pay a heavy price in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
Instead of finger-pointing, it would be a wise Government which seeks to look into the future and not into the unsavoury past. India needs Sri Lanka just as the latter needs its big neighbour. Both are members of several regional and multilateral organisations such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and South Asia Cooperative Environment Programme, not to mention South Asian Economic Union and BIMSTEC. Since a bilateral free trade agreement was signed and came into effect in 2000, Indo-Sri Lanka trade rose by 128 per cent in just four years and quadrupled by 2006. Between 2000 and 2004 India’s exports to Sri Lanka, increased by 113 per cent while Sri Lankan exports to India increased by 342 per cent. Both nations are also signatories of the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA). India’s National Thermal Power Corporation is scheduled to build a 500 mw thermal power plant in Sampoor which will take Indo-Sri Lankan relationship to a new level.
India has problems with Sri Lanka in the matter of fishing in the Straits but they are nothing in comparison to what India has been doing to help Sri Lanka. A number of development projects are being implemented under ‘Aid to Sri Lanka’ funds. An Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Cooperation in Small Development Projects has been signed.
Indian Government have also shown interest in collaborating with their Sri Lankan counterparts on building tourism between the two countries based on shared religious heritage. According to media reports, even Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has promised to work with Sri Lankan authorities to build a temple dedicated to Sita in Nuwara Eliya.
To show, in the circumstances pettiness is in poor taste. For better or for worse Sri Lanka is close to India not only because of the Tamil presence in substantially large numbers in north-east Sri Lanka, but because of Buddhism.
Sri Lanka’s needs are commensurate with its size and India has shown to be gracious in showing care and concern for the Sri Lankans at large. It is against this background that Dr Manmohan Singh should have gone to Sri Lanka for an entirely non-political conference called by the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is a needed institution. If it didn’t exist it would have been necessary to invent it. Time was when Britain, as the master country, dominated the organisation. Now the time has come for India, as the largest member, to take charge of it, even if it is in Britain’s shadow. As many as 53 countries are members of the Commonwealth, covering 29 million sq.kms, spanning all continents, with an estimated population of 2.245 billion, almost a third of the population of the world.
Of that population, half of it is in India, a point worth remembering. So we have – and should have – a stake in the Commonwealth. There are some who even believe that the Commonwealth should be turned into a Union on lines similar to the European Union and one can just imagine what influence India can exercise in its formation and possible birth.
For India, in the circumstances, to have behaved childishly to propitiate Tamil Nadu and for dissuading Dr Singh from attending the CHGM conference is not only bad politics but poor understanding of the Commonwealth’s future. India must behave like an adult country. And Tamil leaders must learn to put the country’s interests ahead of their narrow emotional hang-ups.By declining to attend the CHGM meeting Dr Manmohan Singh has done a distinct disservice to India.