(Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena on May 31, 2019 at New Delhi)
Political developments in India inevitably receive big attention in the neighbouring South Asian countries. Sri Lanka is a special case where Indian developments have impacted the country’s political landscape. Unsurprisingly, the Sri Lankan ruling elite is always keenly attuned to the political winds in India.
How far the decision by President Maithripala Sirisena on May 23 to cut short the prison sentence of the Sri Lankan hardline Buddhist monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, head of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or “Buddhist Power Force” was influenced by the prospect of a second term for the Hindu nationalist government in India cannot be gauged with certainty. But Sirisena was one of the first among world leaders to telephone PM Narendra Modi to congratulate him on the election victory. And the intriguing part is that the BBS head has publicly claimed in the past that his organisation has dealings with the RSS in India.
Gnanasara had just served nine months of a 6-year prison sentence. His pardon came only a week after rioters attacked Muslim-owned homes, shops, and mosques in apparent reprisal for Easter bombings, claimed by Islamic State, that killed more than 250 people. Soon after his release, Gnanasara vowed to fight Islamic militancy. Clearly, Sirisena made some political calculations and possibly there is a deal between the two. Within hours of his release late in the evening of May 23, Gnanasara called on Sirisena along with his mother at the official residence of the president. A government briefing highlighted that the monk’s mother expressed her appreciation to Sirisena for extending a presidential pardon and releasing her son from prison.
There is a curious similarity in the political trajectory of the nationalist forces in India and Sri Lanka at present. In Sri Lanka too, ‘majoritarianism’ is the leitmotif of electoral politics and it is virtually certain that the forthcoming presidential election will be fought on the platform of Sinhala chauvinism, with strong anti-Muslim overtones. Sirisena’s decision to pardon the hardline monk should be seen in this light. Sirisena hopes to appropriate the Sinhalese nationalist platform and faces strong competition from former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Sirisena will strive to create a perception that he enjoys the backing of the Indian ruling elite. During the past week, he made some strong overtures to New Delhi. His insistence on attending Modi’s inaugural, the signing of the port deal with India and Japan to develop a deep-sea container terminal in Colombo and his successful bid to get Modi to visit Colombo next week signify a U-turn on the part of Sirisena (who had not too long ago alleged an Indian plot to assassinate him). During the past year, Delhi had conspicuously displayed its bonhomie with Sirisena’s arch rivals Rajapakse and PM Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The optics of any affinity with India’s ruling Hindu nationalist forces may be of advantage to Sirisena when he makes his bid for another presidential term, but it can hurt Indian interests to get entangled with the rising Islamophobia in Sri Lanka. Not many Indians would know that 99 percent of Sri Lankan Muslims are Tamil-speaking. Already it is evident that India has lost its leverage on Sri Lanka’s Tamil problem. May 18 passed unnoticed, which has become known as Tamil Genocide Day. This year marked the 10th anniversary of the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka and reconciliation and justice remains elusive.
In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks, allegations have been made that the Muslim militants in Sri Lanka draw sustenance from India. An overarching impression is being created that the ISIS is gaining ground in India. The states of Kerala and Jammu & Kashmir have been mentioned in this connection. Scary reports have appeared that a boat of ISIS activists has set off towards Indian islands of Lakshadweep and Minicoy. The BJP leadership in Kerala cited these unsubstantiated rumours to whip up communal polarisation.
The American think tank Jamestown Foundation featured a commentary last week entitled ‘Rising Threat of Radicalization in Kerala and Connections to Sri Lanka’. It has blown out of proportion the spectre of an ISIS presence in J&K and “a few worrisome trends that have developed in Kerala over the past several years.” It alleges:
“The cause for the disparity between the number of Keralites radicalized compared to those from more northern states is hard to pin down to a single cause, but among the reasons reported by Kerala police and locals are historical links to Gulf states and the high percentage of migrant workers subjected to a more conservative brand of Islam in the Gulf and even in the Maldives… Along with the high number of migrant workers has come an influx of remittances, accounting for a third of the state’s economy, and a steady rise in Salafist mosques and madrassas. The areas that historically had the highest number of emigrants and the largest rise in Salafist mosques and madrasas…”
The commentary blithely speculates on “the possibility of an interconnected… network that links militants from Jammu and Kashmir—where IS does have more solid ties—to Kerala, Sri Lanka, and beyond… These nascent connections coupled with links to foreign fighters as well as familial and migrant ties to Gulf states and the Maldives raises concerns over the possibility for more cross-coordination between recruiters, propagandists, and would-be terrorists.”
The Jamestown Foundation is a flagship founded with CIA support in the Cold War era tasked with engineering defections from the Soviet bloc countries. It has enduring links to the US security establishment and intelligence. When such alarmist threat perceptions are projected without any empirical evidence to substantiate them, this entire propagandistic exercise serves as underpinning to a geopolitical agenda. Delhi should begin to wonder Who stands to gain?
Taking advantage of the Easter Sunday killings, US’ Indo-Pacific Command managed to deploy its personnel to Sri Lanka. The US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper is due to visit Colombo next week to “meet with government officials and think tank experts to discuss security, peacekeeping, clearance of landmines and unexploded ordnance, counterterrorism, and other areas of mutual interest.”
During the past 4-year period since the ‘regime change’ in Sri Lanka in January 2015, the US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) has greatly strengthened its military ties with Sri Lanka, training its soldiers and holding joint military exercises. INDOPACOM is also assisting in the establishment of a Sri Lankan navy marine corps along the line of the US Marines. Addressing the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington in early February, INDOPACOM chief Admiral Philip Davidson declared that Sri Lanka “remains a significant strategic opportunity in the Indian Ocean and our military-to-military relationship continues to strengthen.”
The war on terror provides the perfect alibi for the US to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries and to establish its military presence. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, etc. are current examples. That is what makes the entire paradigm extremely worrisome — Sri Lanka’s terrorism problem, alleged nexus between Sri Lankan and Indian (especially Kashmiri) militants, majoritarianism fueling communal polarisation and in turn radicalising the minority Muslim community, etc.
Sirisena should fight his political battles on his own steam. A political weathercock doesn’t make a steady friend. He could be India’s friend today, but was China’s yesterday and well could be tomorrow as well. Perhaps, a visit by PM Modi to Colombo at the present juncture was best avoided. It will convey a misleading signal to the Sri Lankan elite and public — and regionally and internationally.