Since 2013, Sri Lankan armed forces officers haven’t been allowed to train in the southern state, but statecraft demands that this relationship be repaired.

Last week saw a significant step taken by Seychelles and India for the development of Assumption Island to further the island nation’s economic security. However, there is another gap in Indian statecraft, of significant importance albeit of a different nature, that needs addressing. But more on that later.

The decades of security cooperation between India and Mauritius has led to a remarkable strengthening of the trust between the two countries, and in the time to come, the same could be said for the Indo-Seychelles friendship, which has already seen decades of a robust security cooperation programme. Helping set up some infrastructure for better maritime surveillance will secure further benefits for Seychelles’ blue economy.

Much of this cooperation has been due to the bonds of professional trust, understanding and friendships built through military training in several Indian institutions.

Now, here’s the problem that needs to be solved. India has had a deep military training and defence-cooperation relationship with Sri Lanka over decades, long before Chinese inroads into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) started presenting India with newer concerns. True, there have been some bumps in the military-to-military (M2M) relationship due to a host of factors. Many have been related to the pulls and pushes of domestic politics in both countries.

Nonetheless, through the ups and downs of the larger strategic issues between the countries, India remained an important military-training partner of Sri Lanka. A very high proportion of Sri Lankan armed forces (SLAF) personnel, officers as well as other ranks, have consistently been welcomed into Indian defence training institutes for decades. In most cases, they have been sponsored under the Indian government’s International Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programmes administered by the External Affairs Ministry.

Regrettably, since June 2013, SLAF officers have not been attending the foundational Professional Military Education (PME) course at the Staff College at Wellington in Tamil Nadu. The simple reason for this was the pressure put on the central government by Tamil Nadu political forces to prevent any training for SLAF personnel in that state.

At rather short notice, SLAF officers and other personnel at the IAF’s training base at Tambaram, near Chennai, were relocated to other institutions or, as in the case of the Staff College, they simply returned to Sri Lanka. The officers must have spent no more than a few weeks in India before returning home.

There certainly are some thorny issues between Sri Lanka and India that have implications at the level of state politics. The travails of fishermen in troubled waters is one such problem. Real, perceptional and emotive issues concerning the larger Tamil question also matter. Given the nature of state-level politics, pressures on the central government require acknowledgement.

However, statecraft at the national level needs to look much beyond in ways that strengthen Indian interests. Thus, if it were truly important to make Indian unhappiness with matters affecting Tamil Nadu apparent, then it should have transcended provincial politics, resulting in strictures placed on SLAF training that were more severe than proscribing such PME/ training in merely one state. If it were not – and it actually isn’t – then greater political parleys between the Centre and state governments ought to have resolved the matter.

How did this tactical “compromise” strategically help at the levels of either domestic politics or the larger diplomatic discourse between India and Sri Lanka? Very likely, it served no one’s abiding interests, even if it might have created an illusion of a battle victory for some political factions. Unfortunately, it does seem as if the lowest hanging fruits of debarring Sri Lankan officers from one state just seemed to have placated local sentiments while the bigger issues remained.

Now, four years later, some very concrete politico-diplomatic progress between the two nations has been made at multiple levels. Some of it has been via crucial discussions, powerful symbolism and landmark visits between the heads of government last year.

Geography, history, culture, religions, economics and peoples link Sri Lanka and India together in a manner which China cannot replicate, despite the  investments it makes, arms it might twist (or supply!), or even the submarines that visit Sri Lankan ports. Nonetheless, Chinese inroads ought not to be underestimated, nor the long-term purpose of their maritime initiatives be minimised. Their moves on the chess-board of maritime diplomacy are not open-ended but are fundamental to giving them a military advantage in case there is a transition from peace to conflict, and not only with India.

In place of Indian complacency, therefore, is the need for more engagement. Sri Lanka would, for its own reasons, continue to engage with China at different levels, just as we do. However, the long-term strategic strands between our two nations could form a strong bond. The occasional fibres and yarns that unravel from these strands have to be set right at the tactical level, so that the strategic benefits of statecraft are not lost.

We need only to recall the many years of outrage felt in India when the Australian government peremptorily asked Indian officers doing courses in Australia to exit in the wake of the May 1998 nuclear tests by India. It took them about three years to figure out disadvantages that self- goals bring. Today, we are talking of “quad” possibilities with them.

Nearly five years later, and in consonance with the scope and depth of our military diplomacy with a vital neighbour like Sri Lanka, it is time that the portals of the Staff College at Wellington are reopened for officers from the SLAF. Tactical moves as the one in June 2013 that saw SLAF officers departing may have brought some transient relief on the state’s political stage, but they do not quite buy peace. In statecraft, let tactics not trump strategy. “SAGAR” (Security and Growth For all) would benefit from this measure as well.

(The author is a retired naval officer)   

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