A few days we spent last week in Sri Lanka with no business to mix with pleasure turned out to be a pleasant surprise. This island, characterised often as an island of blood and violence, appeared to be out of this world, peaceful, relatively prosperous, hospitable and at peace with the world. We did not see the dreaded Tamil Tigers nor wily Sinhala killers. And not a single Chinese, who are said to be everywhere, exploiting the islanders, building bridges and roads that lead only to Beijing. A certain placidity prevailed despite reports of no-confidence motions, anti-Muslim riots and Tamil discontent.
Sri Lanka has a special way with tourists. Hospitality comes naturally to them and even if the facilities are not faultless, the way they deal with tourists makes up for their deficiencies. Rather than argue or give excuses, they quietly rectify the mistakes without making a fuss. Such accumulated wisdom and experience make Sri Lanka an ideal destination for tourists. The comparatively lower cost and availability of facilities that suit any pocket are also attractions. The scenery is similar to Kerala, but the main difference is that its cleanliness and general attitude of its people. As Sanjay Manjrekar, a former cricketer and commentator wrote, “I came to realise that although its topography is a bit like south India, it is nothing like India. Its people are nothing like Indians. For starters, it is clean. The entire country is clean. You will see obvious poverty in the smaller towns, but you will not see dirt. Give India a nice scrub and you get Sri Lanka. They are already ‘Swachh Sri Lanka’.”
Sri Lankan cuisine is well-known among food enthusiasts, but it has to tag along as an extension of Indian cuisine to be recognised abroad. Sri Lankan restaurants serve Indian dishes to establish its linkage with the Indian brand. But the truth is that Sri Lankan cuisine is unique and Sri Lankan chefs can cook genuine global delicacies. In fact, the greatest discovery that I made was that this small island can offer a wide variety of food items, which are difficult to find in much larger countries. No wonder Sri Lankan chefs are much sought after anywhere in the world. Other countries may offer their own specialities, but Sri Lanka can offer specialities from all countries. Perhaps, Colombo has the largest number of eateries per square foot in the world, except Manhattan. The buffet at the Taprobane Restaurant at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel proudly displays many delicacies, ranging from the humble coconut chutney of Kerala and the Korean Khimchi to the best Norwegian smoked salmon side by side.
The distances in Colombo itself are surprisingly long, considering that Sri Lanka is a small island. World-class highways criss cross the country, a visible consequence of Chinese munificence, which has dwarfed years of Indian assistance. Hambantota, the sprawling port, which can receive Chinese submarines now, was once offered to India on a platter, but India did not have the kind of money to build such a port. Nor did India realise the danger of the port becoming part of China’s String of Pearls Strategy to contain India. Now Sri Lankan analysts have begun to argue that it would not be in Sri Lanka's interests to allow the Chinese navy access to the port and in any event the exposed nature of the port would make it of dubious value to China in time of conflict. The port has already become a significant segment of the Belt Road Initiative, which has made Xi Jinping president for life. The new president of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena, had pledged to distance himself from China, but today finds himself more and more deeply involved politically and economically with China.
Buddha statues are everywhere in Sri Lanka, often white images standing out in the wide greenery. They make the scenery distinctly different form Kerala, where temples, churches and mosques dominate the skyline. But Kerala has yet another connection with Sri Lanka in the sense that the Ezhavas or Thiyyas, a large segment of the Hindu community in Kerala are believed to be the progeny of four bachelors that the king of Ceylon sent to Kerala at the request of the Chera king Bhaskara Ravi Varma, in the 1st century AD. These men were sent, ostensibly, to set up coconut farming in Kerala. Another version of the story says that the Sri Lankan king sent eight martial families to Kerala at the request of a Chera king to quell a civil war that had erupted in Kerala against him. The Buddhist tradition of the Ezhavas kept them away from integrating with the Brahminical society. This tradition is still evident as Ezhavas show greater interest in the moral, non-ritualistic, and non-dogmatic aspects of the religion rather than the theological. Some Buddhist features are evident in their practices and customs.
I did not make any new discovery about Sri Lankan politics, which appeared as chaotic as ever, particularly after Ranil Wickramasinghe survived a no-confidence motion even after some leading members of the ruling coalition voted against him. It is a mystery that some veteran leaders chose to vote for the motion, even when they knew that the government would survive the vote. Six ‘rebellious’ ministers have quit the government since. A leading Indian commentator on Sri Lanka and Maldives, Prof. N Sathiya Moorthy of the Observer Research Foundation looked at his crystal ball and said: “If only the UNP leadership and its MPs chose to look in the mirror even for a fleeting moment and pause to see what they get to see, then they would have little choice but to acknowledge that it was their doing that is becoming the undoing of the National Unity Government, whether or not it now continues under the very same nomenclature.”
India is at a loss in Sri Lanka as it found itself on the losing side in a decisive war in which it did not participate. China and Pakistan are reaping the harvest of their support to the government against the Tamils and even the Tamil leadership is skeptical of India. But India has no choice but to remain engaged because of its geography and history.
Meeting the Indian High Commissioner, Taranjit Sandhu, who was my colleague in Washington during the difficult days of the nuclear tests of 1998, was sheer delight. I could see that he was weighed down by the dwindling options for India in Sri Lanka. But he showed the same fighting spirit he had in defending the nuclear tests on the Capitol Hill in 1998. Looking at him, I recalled a remark made by General Zia- ul- Haq of Pakistan to the then High Commissioner Mani Dixit after a visit to all the SAARC countries. “It appears that India sends short people as envoys to SAARC countries!”, he said. Dixit was quick with his repartee: “It is deliberate policy, Mr. President, we do not want to appear to be the Big Brother to them!”
India-Sri Lanka relations have been like a kaleidoscope, changing at every twist of history. India will always remain critical for Sri Lanka. Indian soft power may well be the trump card for us even after the present setback. Buddhism and Cricket shall always remain strong bonds the Chinese cannot get for love or for money. This is the serendipity in Sri Lanka that, I thought, should give us reason for optimism.
Surprisingly, even after long years of contacts and many agreements and treaties, India and Sri Lanka do not seem to have understood each other. Trust deficit is a feature in our relations with Sri Lanka, which seems to trust China more than India because of its distance from the island. Now that the Tamil separatism has faded, it should be possible to find new avenues of cooperation.