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Leaping tiger or cowering mouse

In the almost four years that have passed since the end of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka, the Colombo government has worked relentlessly to consolidate Sinhala dominance over the Tamil speaking regions. During this time, India’s tentative policy of appeasement and meek diplomacy in the hopes of crafting a political solution on the island has, in no uncertain terms, failed dismally. This timid approach has only seen Sri Lanka’s brazen defiance swell, with the state continuing to act audaciously in the face of creeping international pressure, safe in the knowledge that India’s placation will continue. International action on Sri Lanka is however, slowly beginning to mobilise and if India is serious about becoming a globally recognised power, it must take a leading role in reigning in its unruly neighbour. If not, as pressure on Sri Lanka continues to mount, India risks being an ineffectual bystander, side-lined in its own backyard.

India’s diffident approach to Sri Lanka post-2009 has visibly and embarrassingly unravelled in the face of Sri Lanka’s petulant defiance. Hesitancy in pressing Sri Lanka to make any sort of progress towards accountability or a political solution has left Sinhala chauvinism unchecked, allowing it to thrive and run amok. Human rights and rule of law on the island have continued to deteriorate, with sustained attacks on Tamils and a concrete political solution to the ethnic conflict, more elusive than ever.

Despite India’s claim to regional power status, Sri Lanka has been adept at defying it at almost every turn with Sinhala Buddhism retaining its long standing anti-Indian chauvinism and hostility. On the economic front Sri Lanka has worked to marginalise Indian access to the island. The much lauded Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) is stalled and Colombo regularly initiates a host of other provocative measures, such as deporting Indian traders. In addition, Indian offers to develop Palali airport, that would have facilitated and enhanced trade and cultural links between the Tamil North-East and South India, have been forthrightly rejected.

Meanwhile, India continues to be politically humiliated in a very public and high profile way. Despite Colombo’s repeated assurances to India on its willingness to share power with the Tamils, President Rajapakse declared in his independence day speech this February that such measures were ‘not practical’ for Sri Lanka. Colombo’s repeated and public defiance of Indian demands, accompanied by the Sri Lankan Navy’s unceasing attacks on Indian fishermen, makes it patently clear that the policy of appeasing Sri Lanka has singularly backfired.

Yet, inexplicably, the placation has continued, with India providing military training to Sri Lankan troops and engaging in war games with the island. This policy has done nothing more than to empower a brazen Sri Lankan state, strengthening ethnic chauvinism on the island. Moreover, Sri Lanka confidently expects continued Indian support on the international front, apparently secure that Delhi’s policy of appeasement will continue indefinitely.

As Sri Lanka attempts to resist steadily rising international pressure, it will doubtless turn to India for support. But it should now be clear that without co-ordinated international efforts to check Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism, India cannot hope to realise any of its objectives on the island. A highly militarised, authoritarian, Sinhala chauvinist state is fundamentally incompatible with Indian interests, and intrinsically unstable, both internally and externally. India must drive action on Sri Lanka and work actively to dismantle the dominance of Sinhala chauvinism. If, however, India continues with its tentative and faltering approach, it risks watching wistfully from the side-lines as important shifts inevitably occur, as was the case in Burma.

In order to realise its global aspirations, India must steer rather than stall assertive action on Sri Lanka. This would demonstrate not only India’s regional capacity, but also signal the fortitude and resolution needed to become an influential player on the global stage. With open ambitions for permanent membership of the Security Council, India can no longer shy away from taking bold determined steps in the international arena. In the words of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha, India must act decisively on the Sri Lanka issue if it is to be a ‘leaping tiger’ rather than a ‘cowering mouse.’