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Lankans take dim view of Indo-US deal

Edit-page articles suggest that Lankans view the alliance with skepticism if not trepidatio, reports PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Mar 05, 2006 18:12 IST

If comments in Sri Lankan media are any indication, Sri Lankans have a dim view of the new-found Indo-US strategic alliance sealed in New Delhi on March 3.

Edit-page articles in the leading English dailies over the past few days suggest that the Sri Lankans view the alliance with skepticism if not trepidation.

The majority Sinhalas as well as the minority Tamils and Muslims view the United States and India somewhat warily, though for very different reasons.

It is likely that this pattern will be seen in regard to the US-India nuclear and strategic alliance also.

Media comments

Before going into the reasons for the disapproval, let us see how the media has commented on the Delhi Deal.

The first shot was fired on March 2, interestingly enough by the state-owned Daily News.

It reproduced an article from The Hindu which said that the India-US relationship was not accepted by the Indian non-elite, and that it would not become a Jugalbandhi "without all shades of Indian nationalism feeling comfortable with Washington's global agenda."

On March 4, Daily News reproduced firebrand Arundhati Roy's piece entitled: "Bush in India: Just not welcome."

On March 3, in an article entitled "Be Indian buy American" Daily Mirror columnist Ameen Izzadeen said that the nuclear energy deal was not the only reason why Bush went to India.

The larger picture was about dumping excess US products in India and Bush was going to "pave the way for the US multinationals to continue their plunder in India," he said.

"It appears that the Gandhian slogan of 'Be Indian Buy Indian' is gradually being replaced by a Bush slogan 'Be Indian, Buy American'."

Reflecting the dim view of India common in the sub-continent, Izzadeen said: "The fact that some 300 million Indians are earning less than one US dollar a day, together with some 800 million people below the poverty line, does not appear to flash in the mind of the business minded President."

Izzadeen concluded that the new "symbiotic nature" of the US-India relationship meant that Pakistan could no longer hope to solve the Kashmir problem to the satisfaction of all three parties to the conflict, namely, Pakistan, India and the Kashmiri people.

The state-owned Sunday Observer carried an op-ed piece lifted from Guardian which said that that underneath the "fuzzy talk of shared values", President Bush's real concern was to "hobble" a potential rival -- India.

According to the writer, Randeep Ramesh, the US was afraid that India might outstrip it in nuclear technology if it was not reined in by a deal.

He pointed out that while the Indians had been building reactors and achieving technological breakthroughs independently, the US had not built a reactor for three decades.

"As Bush's own nuclear negotiating team has made clear in testimony to the Congress, the administration wants to lock in India to a deal, before moving to tie down and restrain the country's nuclear potential in non-proliferation discussions."

"As India may find to its cost, getting into a hot embrace with Washington is easy, getting out may be harder," Ramesh concludes.

Writing in Sunday Island, columnist Selvam Canagaratna quotes Fred Kaplan's article in the magazine Slate to ask: "If the United States can cut a deal with India (ignoring the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty signed by 187 nations and administered by the five nuclear powers) what is to prevent China or Russia from doing the same with Pakistan and Iran?"

"If India demands special treatment on the grounds that is a stable democracy, what is to keep Japan, Brazil or Germany from picking on the precedent?"

Reasons for Lankan skepticism

For the majority Sinhalas, both India and the US are problematical from the point of view of the ethnic conflict in the island.

An Indo-US tie means possible pressure on the regime in Colombo to accept a negotiated "federal" solution and the ruling out of war to finish off the LTTE at a time when the latter is supposedly weak.

Federalism is anathema for the Sinhala moderates as well as the hard core nationalists.

There is also a feeling that too much leeway is being given to the belligerent LTTE under pressure from the "international community" including India.

That the US has come down heavily on the LTTE since 2002 for its transgressions of the Ceasefire Agreement CFA), and the fact that the US has been keeping the LTTE on the banned list since 1998, do not seem to matter in the light of the fear of an US-imposed federal solution.

India's formal and oft-repeated position is that it is committed to the unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka and that it will support any solution which is acceptable to all the communities of Sri Lanka. But at the same time, New Delhi is also promoting a solution based on the federal model.

In a way, New Delhi is committed to federalism through the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987.

Tamil perception

For the minority Tamils, led by the LTTE, the US and India are both bugbears. Among the members of the international community (which means the co-chairs of the 2003 Tokyo donors' conference) the US is the most belligerent vis-à-vis the LTTE, coming down heavily on it in statements on the ethnic question from time to time.

The US's global campaign against terrorism since 9/11 is particularly frightening. An US military intervention is not dismissed as an impossibility.

As regards India, the memory of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) is still fresh in the minds of the LTTE and the Tamils of the North Eastern Province (NEP). The IPKF had cornered the LTTE, which forced the latter to make peace with the regime in Colombo in 1988.

The LTTE and the Tamils fear that India and US may aid the Sri Lankan government militarily when it comes to the crunch. One of them may render aid directly, with the other giving it its blessings.

Muslim perception

As regards the Muslims, there is an in-built anti-American feeling because of years of indoctrination about the US role in propping up Israel.

The US action against Iraq is particularly hurtful. And the contemplated action against Iran triggers ire.

Sri Lankan Muslims, who had had very close ties with Tamil Nadu in India historically, have moved away from the northern neighbour, particularly since Sri Lanka's independence in 1948.

Global Islamisation and the increasing financial clout of the oil-rich West Asian countries have made them turn towards West Asia, rather than India.

In recent years Pakistan has been making determined efforts to cultivate the Muslim community in the island.

India's failure to appreciate the Muslims' demands vis-a-vis the Tamils of the North Eastern Province in the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 and the alleged failure of the IPKF to help the Muslims when attacked by Tamil militants had alienated the Eastern Muslims who are politically quite strong now.

Sri Lankan Muslims, who had earlier appreciated India's "anti-imperialist" stand on Israel, are now disappointed that India has patched up with that country, and had recently voted against Iran on the nuclear issue at the behest of the US.

In recent times, India has made moves to build bridges with the Sri Lankan Muslims, particularly the North Eastern Muslims. India has also been saying that any political settlement of the ethnic conflict must satisfy all communities (including Muslims). But suspicions about India's commitment to the Muslim cause still remain.

In the context of the changed scenario in the Indian sub-continent following the US-India deal, the majority Sinhalas may be tempted to tilt more towards Pakistan and China, countries which have long been described as their most trustworthy friends.

China and Pakistan, which have had no ethnic stakes in Sri Lanka unlike India, have helped Sri Lanka unconditionally. Both had sold arms to the Sri Lankan government when India had refused to sell fearing opposition in Tamil Nadu. The US too had been finicky about selling arms to a government waging a war against the minority Tamils.

In this context, President Mahinda Rajapaksa's visit to Islamabad at the end of March assumes significance.

Rajapaksa is known to be close to China given his strong socialistic inclinations. China has already been given major infrastructural projects in Sri Lanka.