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As Colombo turns to China, RSS helps Jaishankar tamp down furore on Amit Shah’s ‘remarks’

From human rights vote in Geneva to Maldives defence pact, India seeks options to chastise Sri Lanka.

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As if External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has not had enough trouble on his hands these past few weeks, with Sri Lanka peremptorily cancelling a 2019 agreement, likely under Chinese pressure, that enjoined India and Japan to build a terminal in the Colombo port. He has also had to deal with Nepal and Sri Lanka complaining about Home Minister Amit Shah’s alleged comments on establishing “BJP governments” in these two nations.

There is some concern in Sri Lanka as to what India will do next to demonstrate its displeasure — whether it will abstain or vote in favour of a resolution at the Human Rights Council in Geneva in the coming days, that seeks to censure Sri Lanka on its human rights record. 

Perhaps Colombo, at this moment, should remember how Delhi held its nose but stood like a rock in support, in Geneva in 2010 — despite the huge human rights violations committed by the Sri Lankan army the previous year when it ended the war against the LTTE, by killing its chief V. Prabhakaran as well as his young son.

So the question today is, how upset is Jaishankar with a country he has known since 1988 when he was posted there as a young diplomat, for reneging on a port pact meant to underline the special relationship between India and Sri Lanka; a country he has visited twice as foreign minister since the Rajapaksas came to power in late 2019, in an effort to hold Colombo’s nerve and prevent it from succumbing to the Chinese?

In fact, what does this do to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s red-carpet outreach to the Brothers Rajapaksa – both President Gotabaya and Prime Minister Mahinda – who were awarded a $450 million line of credit and reiteration of an exceptional Japanese loan to build the port terminal at 0.1 per cent for 40 years, when they came to Delhi soon after they returned to power in 2019?

On the Geneva human rights vote, Sri Lanka has already asked India for support, even cancelling a parliamentary speech by visiting Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. But it’s not clear if this is enough to mollify Delhi.

Also read: India, China must rebuild trust gradually after ‘great negative impact’ of Ladakh, experts say

RSS to Jaishankar’s rescue

Certainly, Jaishankar has his work cut out. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is providing some help to tamp down a potential furore in India’s neighbourhood over Tripura chief minister Biplab Deb’s comments last week, which referred to Amit Shah’s “Atmanirbhar South Asia” initiative when the latter was BJP president two years ago. According to Deb, when BJP northeast zonal secretary Ajay Jaiswal praised Shah for expanding the party across the country, Shah responded by saying, “We have to expand the party in Nepal, Sri Lanka and win there to form a government.”

The RSS’ northeast chief Ulhas Kulkarni as well as its Tripura head Nikhil Niwaskar are believed to have since reprimanded Biplab Deb. Certainly, neither the BJP nor the government wants to see a replay of the outcry triggered by Shah’s “termite” remarks in Bangladesh and the consequent damage to the India-Bangladesh relationship — until PM Modi took matters in his own hands and sent foreign secretary Harsh Shringla to Dhaka to issue the diplomatic version of an apology.

In response to Deb’s remarks supposedly quoting Amit Shah, the Nepali-language Naya Patrika pointed to a recent RSS conference in Birganj inaugurated by Kalyan Timilsina, the national convenor of the RSS in Nepal and asked, “Has this secret plan of the BJP come out?” According to The Kathmandu Post, Nepal’s ambassador in India Nilamber Acharya called the Ministry of External Affairs and complained about Indian interference in Nepal’s internal affairs. While the chairman of Sri Lanka’s election commission, Nimal Punchihewa was quoted in Ceylon Today as saying that a foreign political party cannot set up office in Sri Lanka, no matter how strong it is.

Certainly, India’s neighbourhood is astir again. Apart from the damage caused by domestic politics transcending borders, New Delhi has been forced to become nimbler in response to China flexing its muscle in the Indian Ocean in an attempt to unseat India from its traditional sphere of influence.

For example, Jaishankar has tried to compensate the loss in Sri Lanka by signing a defence pact with the Maldives over the weekend and shore up the relationship with Mauritius – both key pit stops in the Indian Ocean.

Also read: Has India spoilt the party for China ahead of CCP’s 100th anniversary? What Xi won’t say

Lanka’s China love, India’s options

What remains unclear though is why Mahinda Rajapaksa, who described PM Modi as “my good friend” not so long ago, has so openly shifted allegiance to Beijing. Colombo has also allowed a Chinese energy project to come up on three islands off Jaffna, barely 50 km away from the Tamil Nadu coast, knowing full well that this will directly impact India’s security. Moreover, energy minister Udaya Gammanpila has said that Sri Lanka will soon take back the fuel tanks it had leased to India on the eastern shore-board in Trincomalee.

So what should India do to make its displeasure known to the Rajapaksa brothers, besides the human rights vote in Geneva? Should it redirect its huge tourist potential instead to the Maldives and Mauritius — remember, that India topped the incoming tourist market in Sri Lanka with 19 per cent of arrivals in 2019. Or should it reduce its dependence on Colombo Port, which commands the bulk of Indian transshipment cargo, thereby dealing the port a body blow?

Certainly, the Ministry of External Affairs is carefully studying its options, but the data since the 2018 cabotage reform is clear: Allowing foreign carriers to dock at Indian ports (like Cochin) has significantly brought down the dependence of Indian transshipment cargo on Colombo port. As for tourism on which Sri Lanka is so hugely reliant, it might just find that learning Mandarin is far more difficult than Hindi.

Views are personal.

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  1. Thumbing their nose at India may pay some political and economic dividends in the short run, but Lanka, like many others who fell into their trap, will find out soon enough find out what Chinese “aid” really costs.

  2. Sri Lanka is a peculiar country. Almost all sections of the island’s population are peculiar. The Sinhala Buddhists, who constitute the vast majority, are quite particular about their Buddhist identity. But the Buddhism they follow, is different from the original Buddhism followed about 4,000 years in Tibet and other Himalayan regions. The Sinhala Buddhists are heavily Christianised. They for example consider Buddha to be born of a virgin, like Jesus Christ. There are quite a few Sinhala Christians also. The Sinhala Buddhists are also staunch supporters of Ravana and make no bones about it. As far as the Sri Lankan Tamil community is concerned, though majority are Hindus, there are a very large number of Christians also amongst them. There are also a significant number of Tamil Muslims. Tamil Muslims of Sri Lanka consider themselves to be Muslims first and foremost and don’t share amicable relations with other Sri Lankan Tamils. During Easter Sunday on April 21, 2019, Muslims murdered Christians in churches across Sri Lanka. So all in all a very difficult country and it certainly requires a strongman like Amit Shah to crack the whip and discipline it.

  3. I’m a Mauritian. We will gladly welcome any indian tourist wishing to dish Sri Lanka. That said, we favour only high-end tourists with high purchasing power. I don’t know if these are the indian tourists who contemplate vacationing in Sri Lanka. We are much more expensive

    The CAA is a necessary step to protect religiously persecuted minorities of Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan. You clearly don’t care much about them. We do. No matter what foreign governments, foreign or domestic press and activists might say, India will and should protect the persecuted religious minorities of South Asia who live in islamic dictatorships.

    • Mauritius is just a hot spot for laundering Indian black money. If the Chinese came there and pushed you out, that would be good for the Indian economy.

      The CAA was just a show off. How many Hindus have come for availing of this right ? None. Jobs for Indians have shrunk. There was an interview with Hindus who came from Pakistan long ago, even before the BJP, and they have not got citizenship. The govt. bureaucracy and corruption retards them. The Assamese do not want Hindus from Bangladesh, they agitated against it.

  4. I said as far as back as 2016 that a Modi Shah government is a blessing for Pakistan, they are going to inflict pain on India that no amount of effort by Pakistan can do.
    Modi ‘s threatened to isolate Pakistan following Pulwama, yet the opposite has happened and India looks like the one isolated, certainly within its neighbourhood.
    As for Shah, he single handedly invited China to take a chunk of Indian territory following his remarks on Aksai Chin, CAA-NRC have been a disaster, revocation of article 370 has once again put the spotlight on Kashnir in the international media even though india managed to attract some observers from like minded right wing governments from the EU – hardly something to show off about!
    Hasty lockdown, farmers protests, sales tax, rampant unemployment and inflation, tanking GDP, communal unrest and riots, falling currency, rising fuel prices if these are ‘Ache din’ then i’d hate to see what the bad times will be like…

  5. Its impossible SL & its current Prez Rajapakse forget how India created LTTE to terrorize it for 30yrs until China helped to eliminate, and how India RAW-CIA regime changed Rajapakse to halt China’s BRI port.

    Nepal had seen its entire Royal family massacre (RAWS Top10 mission), thrice blockade as close as 2018 by Modi to blackmail it into amending Constitution, so that 4millions illegal India migrants have greater say in Nepal Parliament.

    Maldives was too regime changed by RAWS-CIA to remove China friendly Prez, while installing India puppet to halt China’s BRI, and rushed to sign defense pact for USM-India to install military base.

    Abolished of art370 to illegal annex J& K Ladakh while boasting to invade China’s Arsai Chin by Amit Shah in Parliament winning applause, has drawn Ladakh costly standoff. The disengagement is only to avoid miscalculated war, but the standoff will be perpetual until India withdraw from J&K Ladakh and South Tibet.

    India invaded and occupied every neighbors since 1947 speak voluminous of its threat to every Asians. J&K Ladakh, Sikkim, Bhutan, Assam, NEastern 7 states are still awaiting liberation.

  6. If anybody had to be rebuked by by the RSS. it had to be Amit Shah. After alienating Bangladesh with his termites remark, let us not forget his references to Aksai Chin in the parliament which contributed, at least in part, to China’s belligerent position on our borders. He is the serial offender.

  7. Greatly reduced leverage over Sri Lanka also means that India can no longer intervene effectively to secure justice and dignity for the island’s Tamil minority. See how ugly and uncaring a majoritarian state looks when viewed from the outside. Sri Lanka will not be the only sovereign state to tell the UN system, These are out internal matters. You have no idea of the threats we have faced to our territorial integrity.

  8. If Sri Lankans wish to trade and do business more with China, we should not mind it and reduce our linkages with them. In any case, once new deep sea port in Kerala comes up, our reliance on Colombo port for transshipment will go down. As regards Indian tourists, they can go anywhere. But Sri Lanka must be told of our red lines clearly and made it to adhere to them.

  9. All neighbouring countries will be forced to have China-friendly governments due to Amit Shah.

    Indians are suffering due to Amit Shah. Indians are arbitrarily arrested, subjected to riots and pogroms. Shah himself had a fake encounter case against him. He is now minister in charge of law-and-order !

    Shah’s comment shows the worst kind of wishful imperial ambitions. Why would neighbouring countries want a BJP government when they can see Indians are suffering due to it ? They will need China as a bulwark against India.

    As for human rights, Sri Lanka has a poor record, and so does China. India has joined their ranks due to CAA-NRC, ethno-nationalism, pogroms and hate speeches, all promoted by the Shah-Modi duo. It will not be long before there are demands for sanctions against India. Sri Lanka can become pretentious and retort about India’s human rights abuses.

    • Smirker,

      India has a far better record than Sri Lanka on minority rights. The Sri Lankan airforce bombed Tamil cities, the Sri Lankan navy shelled Tamil coastal villages while the Sri Lankan army went berserk killing Tamil civilians. Not one offender is in prison.

      Prior to that the Sri Lankan army killed Sinhalese youth in 1971 and 1989.

      Sri Lanka is also currently a complete basket case utterly dependent on Chinese largesse. The currency continues to slide.

      You obviously don’t know what you are talking about.

  10. The article doesn’t explain why the Sri Lankans have decided to rescind on their agreements and gone back to China. it would be great if the author can do this

  11. Indian transshipment cargo should be processed at Indian ports only.

    Along with a deep water port on the southern tip, we urgently need to create infrastructure at both Lakshadweep and the A&N islands too.

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