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India-Sri Lanka – A new chapter in South Asian history is waiting to be written

India-Sri Lanka relations: Reboot

A few years ago I went for the launch of a premium brand of Sri Lankan Arrack in Delhi. It was a revelation. Till then I had thought Arrack is another name for Toddy. A poor man's drink. But, there I learnt, Vintage Arrack can be as precious as Single Malt Whisky. Matured for upto 15 years in Oak Casks it can give many a tropical alcoholic beverage a run for its money. That set me thinking how little we know about our island neighbour off the southern coast.

In the 1960s, for many North Indians, Sri Lanka meant Ameen Sayani’s Binaca Geetmala on Radio Ceylon. Very few Indian tourists travelled to Ceylon (as it was then called) those days. Visitors from Ceylon were also limited to the Buddhist Circuit. Beyond Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka existed only in tales of the Ramayana. Indians, in general, had little idea of the geography and ethnic composition of Sri Lanka. Colombo was the only city most Indians had heard of. Jaffna was an alien name. They did not know the difference between Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils. Sri Lanka first entered the larger Indian consciousness with its rise in Cricket. Then came its 'Civil War' and IPKF that captured the imagination of Indians.

This backdrop underscores the psychological disconnect we have with our South Asian neighbours. We, of course, had a common heritage with Pakistan and Bangladesh. But, both countries have evolved in different directions due to their internal dynamics. The same is true for Nepal. Despite an open border, we tend to miss the changes inside the Himalayan Republic. In the case of Sri Lanka the gap is wider than the Gulf of Mannar, which the Ram Sethu has not been able to bridge yet.

Sri Lanka and her past 

The history of Sri Lanka dates back to about 40,000 years as per anthropological evidence. Though couched under the Indian Subcontinent, Sri Lanka was not insulated. Apart from Buddhist connections, it had trade links with Southeast Asia and China. From the 16th Century, parts of Sri Lanka were under Dutch, Portuguese and British rule. Even after independence in 1948, it remained a dominion of the British Empire till 1972. So, the Europeans also contributed in shaping the sensibilities of the Lankan people.

Thus in the midst of similarities, India and Sri Lanka have a distinct cultural identity. Indians at large are not aware of this parallel heritage.  This may not have been the case in the pre-partition era. The Indian sub-continent then operated as an integrated geo-political unit. Sri Lanka too was a part of the British empire. After 1947, we became preoccupied with the internal challenges of a fledgling republic.  Pangs of separation with Pakistan – or withdrawal symptoms as it were – consumed our bandwidth. Ceylon too gained independence around the same time (in 1948). As a result, a slight drifting of minds may have happened without anyone noticing.

It would not be far off the mark if one said that, post the 1970s India has seen Sri Lanka more through a strategic lens. This was for good reason. Because of its vantage location Sri Lanka has always been of interest to western powers. More recently, China went into an overdrive to stitch Sri Lanka into its "string of pearls". It has further cemented the bonds by making Sri Lanka a part of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) earlier known as One Belt One Road.

Sri Lanka’s relationship with China is not new. It goes back to many centuries.  The two countries have historical links in maritime trade and religion (Buddhism). Other than Indian architecture, Chinese and East Asian influence in Sri Lankan architecture.  Chinese migrants came to Sri Lanka during the 18th and 19th centuries. They formed settlements. Being small in number they did not create any feeling of insecurity or animosity. But, India was the proverbial "big brother".

Thus, there has been a historical trust deficit with India. This IPKF misadventure aggravated it. The relationship is yet to recover from it. The scars will remain for a long time to come. Due to this rift Pakistan got an entry to fish in troubled waters and continues to play a spoiler. Like some other South Asian countries, Sri Lanka too plays the Pakistan card to keep India in check.

India’s approach to Sri Lanka

Despite our shared past, India’s approach to Sri Lanka has been transactional. Some may argue, it is more from the head than the heart. There are not enough people to people exchange. India has always been a pilgrimage destination for Sri Lankan Buddhists. More Indians started travelling to Sri Lanka after the end of the civil war. But tourist traffic between the two countries remained low key. Covid19 last year disrupted it again. Affluent Sri Lankans prefer going to Europe and the Americas for vacations. Indians chose other exotic locations in South East Asia. 

There have been talks of starting a Ramayana trail in Sri Lanka with Indians in mind. But, it has much more to offer than religious tourism. Its beaches, hills and historical sites can make it a high end tourist attraction. In India, improved connectivity can entice Sri Lankans to look beyond Buddhist centres. There is great scope for enlarging socio-cultural exchange. Music, drama, dance, cinema and sports can be a common ground for interaction. Premier institutions of higher education emerging in India can attract Sri Lankan students. They can also provide the platform of academic interface. Bonhomie at the grassroots creates the foundation for a positive bilateral relationship. 

The second all important ‘T’ of bilateral relations – Trade has remained underexploited. Before the Free Trade Agreement, the Indian market was out of bounds for Sri Lanka.  This compelled it to look at alternative markets. In a few areas, such as Tea, Sri Lanka and India were competitors. Over time Sri Lanka expanded its range of export. Value added products like Apparel surpassed traditional commodities like Tea, Rubber and spices. The US and Europe contribute to over 40 per. cent of Sri Lankan Export Trade.

Indian travellers abroad bought garments manufactured in Sri Lanka under international brand names. However, it came to them as a surprise when Sri Lankan Tea Brands like Dilmah came to boutique tea outlets in India.  Now, Sri Lankan processed meats and seafood brands find space in Indian supermarkets. These are only the taste of things to come. The untapped potential remains huge.

With increasing ease of doing business in India, non-trade barriers are falling apart. This gives Sri Lankan companies greater market access. Economic Integration with the Southern States is now a real possibility. 

This could further open the doors for services, direct investments and technical cooperation. Economic reforms in India have created a level playing field for regional players. The spirit has to shift towards partnership and collaboration from sibling competition.

Though Covid has been a setback, it has also brought the countries closer at a humanitarian level. There is a meeting of minds of the top political leadership. Past misunderstandings are out of the way.

With a confident and “Atmanirbhar India'', it's time to start a parallel channel of soft diplomacy. There are vast reserves of cultural assets to mine in mutual interest.

A new chapter in South Asian history is waiting to be written.