Sri Lanka is a nation trying to live in peace after a generation-long war. If it fails to make the transition, the island runs two risks: a resumption of the civil strife that has wracked the country, and the contamination of its democracy with poisonous strains of Sinhala nationalism. Either would be detrimental to Indian interests, given the threat they pose to Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority amid instability in South Asia. Sri Lanka is also a test case for India’s larger aspirations, where the international community has allowed New Delhi to take the lead. If India cannot find a modus operandi for a country of 21 million, less than 50 kilometres from its coast, it cannot credibly ask to have a say in global affairs.
The present political confrontation between the Mahinda Rajapaksa government and its former army chief, Sarath Fonseka, reflects the civil war’s legacy of militarisation and ethnic friction. In proportion to its size, Sri Lanka’s 230,000-strong armed forces and $1.5 billion military budget are among the world’s largest. Re-scaling these to a peacetime size would be difficult even if Sri Lankan politics were calm. To win the civil war, Colombo mobilised militant forms of Sinhalese nationalism. The Fonseka crisis pits two nationalist factions against each other. The second Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrection is a reminder of the dangers such nationalism poses to Colombo.
The JVP insurrection is also a warning to India of the tightrope it walks if it’s seen to be interfering in Sri Lankan politics — and that of any neighbour. Small countries like the Maldives and Bhutan have no qualms in placing themselves under an Indian security umbrella. But in bigger regional States, like Nepal and Bangladesh, a large chunk of the political establishment defines itself by opposing India. This is not the case in Sri Lanka where a political consensus has evolved that sees India as the final guarantor of the country’s unity and democracy. Thus the Rajapaksa government can publicly call India its ‘closest ally’ or ask New Delhi for help when faced with coup rumours. Even Fonseka has, so far, avoided criticising India. Sri Lanka is a model neighbour: a fully sovereign nation that has learnt to go beyond fears of India’s sheer size. Which makes it all the more important that New Delhi does not put a foot wrong as it assists Sri Lanka beat its swords into ploughshares.