Diplomats and bureaucrats from India dealing with their counterparts from neighbourhood nations (barring Pakistan, of course) often come unstuck with their all-or-nothing attitude. And this is true of non-state actors like the Tamil politicos in Sri Lanka, and even India-friendly political parties that are in power in any given nation at any given time.
The reasons are not far to seek. Struck by the inevitable 'small-nation mentality', neighbourhood interlocutors of all kinds end up attributing ‘big-nation arrogance’ to India at every turn. In reality, the truth lies in between, but Indian policymakers’ hands are eternally full to be able to grab the bull by the horn and sort this dilemma out, all at once. In effect, they invariably end up settling for immediate answers to immediate issues.
Caught In a Perception Warp
However, the ‘immediacy’ of these problems – and responses to them – could extend to years and decades, and still remain where they had started. India’s fishing dispute with Sri Lanka and its border dispute with a smaller nation like Nepal (unlike in the case of eternal adversaries in China and Pakistan) are cases in point. Stakeholders from neighbouring nations are caught in a perception warp.
Even without the IPKF involvement, the Indian engagement in Sri Lanka’s ethnic issue makes for a perfect case study. Then and now, the Tamils want India involved, but only as their mouthpiece, nothing more.
The Sri Lankan government headed by Rajapaksas at best ‘suffered’ the larger neighbour, and kept finding external ways, like China, for a payback. China is also a ‘no-nonsense’ veto power in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and that helps.
Today, when Sri Lanka is literally living ship-to-mouth, thanks to India, most Sri Lankans cannot thank India enough. Yet, there are those who claim that India pre-conditioned emergency aid on ‘strategic agreements’ over Trincomalee oil tank farms, maritime security and island-based non-conventional energy projects in the Tamil North. The Tamil diaspora claims that India did this to ‘save the Rajapaksas, who had Tamil blood on their hands’.
Blind Men and Elephant
New Delhi, too, cannot escape at least a part of the blame. Again, Sri Lanka is a good case study. During the ethnic crisis decades ago, India rushed in bureaucratic interlocutors such as the late G Parthasarathy, Sr, when Tamil victims of the 1983 pogrom risked the seas to take refuge in Tamil Nadu. New Delhi did this and much more later, without studying the socio-political realities on either side of the nation’s ethnic divide, and the complexities of cultural baggage that influenced contemporary perceptions.
Like in the story of the ‘Five Blind Men of Hindoostan and the Elephant’, New Delhi offered what was essentially an Indian model of federal solution in 1987, which suited only post-Independence Indian conditions, in an era after the Second World War.
Institutionally, India was ill-equipped to accept, acknowledge and understand that there could be other problems, requiring other solutions.
India, at least up to that time and even now at times, was/is unaware of the socio-economic undercurrents in Sri Lanka that date back to 2,000 years. As per history – often ignored – a young Sinhala King, Dutugamunu, slew a septuagenarian Tamil ruler, Ellara, in a scheduled duel, followed by South Indian emperor Rajaraja Chola supposedly taking ‘revenge’ a thousand years later, and the LTTE adopting the Cholas’ ‘Tiger’ standard as their emblem, another thousand years down the line. Each of these was seen as either humiliation or revenge.
Insecurity After Bangladesh War & Sikkim Merger
Perceptions of ‘Indian interference’ in domestic affairs are shared by almost every neighbourhood nation. The Bangladesh War (1971) and the merger of Sikkim (1975) made other smaller nations conclude that they would be the next target – no reasons given. In politico-diplomatic terms, India is not known to have done enough since then to assuage this sense of insecurity.
Though much of such notions have waned, if not vanished, owing to no specific Indian initiative, there is the other issue of India having ‘favourites’ for governance in individual states, and also ‘unfavourable’ leaders and parties.
Not very long ago, locally-discredited former Bangladesh Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia was convinced that India wanted her out. Now, who will fill the political vacuum when India-friendly Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina exits is anybody’s guess.
In the Maldives, when in power, former President Abdulla Yameen was also convinced that India wanted him out. After losing power in the 2018 presidential poll, he is on an aggressive ‘India Out’ campaign (since banned), believing without evidence that India would work against his victory in the 2024 elections. If Yameen believes that his government’s proximity to Beijing was the thorn, he even now should look at the common neighbour, Sri Lanka, where India did not have a problem with the sensitive Hambantota project going to China.
Of course, Pakistan is a standalone case. But in Nepal and Bhutan, too, there are anti-India groups, for whom this is a politico-electoral need.
Positivity Doesn’t Stick, No Matter What
Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has, surprisingly, overcome or side-stepped to some extend the negative image in the neighbourhood that was shaped by old-school Hindutva intellectuals, who believed in the supremacy of India, Hinduism and Sanskrit over everything else. Modi’s ‘Neighbourhood First' policy seemed only theoretical until the COVID-19 pandemic struck, when India showed that it meant what it said.
And now, with the economic aid to Sri Lanka, there is more for neighbours to know about the traditional Indian concept of ‘Vasudeva Kudumbakam’ (Sanskrit) and ‘Yadhum oore, yavarum kelir’, (Tamil), both implying that the world is inter-dependent.
The world, too, has changed its views about India for the better, but it’s not enough. The perception baggage remains. As TS Tirumurti, India’s Permanent Representative (PR) at the United Nations, recently said to his Dutch counterpart with regards to the West’s opinion of India’s stance on the Russia-Ukraine crisis, it’s all very ‘patronising’ still, indicating Europe’s colonial mentality.
This quick change-over of India’s self-image is awe-inspiring for most people and nations in the neighbourhood. But there are others who ‘fear’ India for the same reasons. India’s ‘size’ threatens them. Such perceptions, genuine from their own reasoning, flow from New Delhi’s progress from being a neighbourhood entity to a global player. Steeped in the South Asian psyche, they are unable or unwilling to be able to partake in a regional success story. To them, it is aking to ‘insulting’ a ‘poor cousin’, whether it’s by grabbing, denial or generosity.
Caught Between Nehru's Hands-Off Approach and Indira's 'Bangladesh War'
The post-Independence history of the Nehruvian hands-off policy towards the neighbourhood, followed by Indira Gandhi’s diametrically opposite stance underlined by the ‘Bangladesh War’, has confused neighbours.
In foreign and security policy matters, Pakistan and China used to be India’s top obsessions, followed now by the larger world and its dealings. But for smaller neighbours, India is still their only preoccupation, as it used to be in the previous century. They believe that they know more about India, its foreign policy and security prerogatives, especially viz their own nation, than the Indian envoy in various national capitals or the mandarins in the South Block.
The Question of Minorities
Today, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) treatment of India’s minorities is a shared bug-bear in the neighbourhood. Four of eight SAARC nations are Islamic. Three others, namely, India, Sri Lanka and Nepal, have substantial Muslim populations. This is true of Christianity, too, in many, though not all, South Asian nations, starting with India.
Like that of the distant West, the neighbourhood perception is that India, as the world’s largest democracy, should be fair to its minorities. People are also of the opinion that by making India’s minorities feel insecure, New Delhi has lost the moral right to tell Sinhala-majority Sri Lanka (Tamils, Muslims and Upcountry Tamils) and Nepal (Madhesis) to behave.
When India was talking about the erosion of democracy in Yameen’s Maldives, one of the senior ministers reminded New Delhi how they had stayed away from commenting on India’s Kashmir problem. At the same time, there are also those in countries like Sri Lanka who want their governments to follow in India’s footsteps in defying the West’s diktats on minority rights.
Through all this, most South Asian nations, barring Afghanistan, are functional democracies. Dating back to 1931, Sri Lanka is also the oldest electoral democracy in Asia. Despite all the debate in the media, democracy prevails in each of these nations. The Rajapaksas in Sri Lanka, Yameen in the Maldives and other autocrats elsewhere, all have bowed to their people’s voice expressed through elections.
No Nation Is an Island
But there is another side to it all. Much as governments in these nations may dictate their India policy, there comes a time when voters tell governments what their nation’s India policy should be. In context, New Delhi needs to learn its lessons from the Cold War-era dynamics, when the US successfully ‘managed’ ruling allies in Shah’s Iran and Marcos’ Philippines.
The Soviet Union collapsed not only because Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost movements caused Moscow’s pre-emptive collapse, but also because the once-unified nations rebelled (leading up to the Ukraine War today, decades later). That is again a lesson for India – a lesson that India ought to carry its neighbours, both nations and their peoples with it, before reaching out to the rest of the world with its ‘arrival statement’ for the 21st century.
(The writer is a policy analyst & commentator, based in Chennai, India. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)